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Key West

In a community of sun-seekers and tourists, one man goes to extremes to stand up for his island home

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HARRY POWELL is in jail. The former Key West city commissioner carried dynamite and a gasoline can into a construction trailer at Peary Court here one morning in mid-January.

Construction of United States Navy housing units at the site came to a halt. Was that really dynamite strapped to Mr. Powell's chest? Were those blasting caps in his hand? Construction workers fled. Powell picked up the phone and started negotiating with the police.

His objection was the development of the 29-acre parcel of land that belonged to the Navy. At one time the land had been leased by the city for $1 a year. It was one of the few open spaces left on this fragile, almost fully developed, amoeba-shaped island measuring four miles long by roughly 1 1/2 miles wide. Powell and others have fought the housing plan for years.

``Harry became obsessed with it,'' says Jack Lawson, an environmental writer who lives in Key West. ``Everybody kept telling him to forget it. Peary Court was a done deal. He kept saying, `No, it can't be.' ''

Powell was willing to carry his convictions to the next level, a Key West version of civil disobedience enhanced by dynamite, therefore a criminal act. He wanted a commitment from the US General Accounting Office (GAO) and US Sen. Connie Mack (R) to review the alleged ``sub-standard'' housing project to determine if it was really needed.

In many ways Powell represents the character of Key West at its best and worst. The dilemma is this: how to protect the delicate environment of a charming little island, and at the same time balance contemporary political and economic pressures.

Key West is really a small town at the very tip of the Florida keys - 150 miles by car down Highway 1 - with an air of languid, palm-frond charm. This is not mainstream anything, except that people need jobs, and tens of thousands of tourists need hotels.


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