Growing corals in the Florida Keys can qualify for bed-tax cash.
So says a legal opinion handed down Monday by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in response to a query from the Monroe County Commission.
"Our coral reef is one of the main tourist draws down here, and the reefs are not in the best of shape," said Ken Nedimyer, founder of the Coral Restoration Foundation in Tavernier. "We want to go out and fix it."
Applications from Nedimyer's nonprofit organization for a grant from county tourist-development taxes on hotel rooms and other short-term accommodations started the process that resulted in Bondi's six-page opinion.
"In sum, it is my opinion that local option tourist development taxes can be used to fund a coral outplanting project to repair a naturally occurring reef," Bondi wrote.
Monroe County commissioners in July decided on a 3-2 vote that coral-growing nurseries in Keys waters should be able to seek Tourist Development Council money as "zoological parks," a term listed in state law as a legal use of TDC taxes.
"We have to do everything we can to heal the reef because it's not going to heal itself," Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said in July.
Commissioner George Neugent has been a strong advocate for coral nurseries. "Anything that we can do to improve the assets that make us unique, we should take that opportunity," he said.
Bondi's decision affirms the commission's action.
Starting in 2011, the Coral Restoration Foundation applied three times for a TDC grant of approximately $75,000. The requests went nowhere, based on concern from county attorneys that growing coral did not seem to fit under state TDC law.
"When you start chasing down [funding] opportunities, sometimes it goes smoothly and sometimes it doesn't," Nedimyer said. "We had so many people who know the TDC process saying that we need to go for this. So we decided, let's go for another opinion."
Any money from TDC coffers -- which would need approval from tourist advisory groups and the County Commission -- would go toward allowable "bricks and mortar" spending, Nedimyer said.
While "bricks and mortar" usually means facility construction, in this case the term is virtually literal: Bricks to hold growing coral branches and epoxy to hold them.
"We provide all the free labor," Nedimyer said.
Previous attorney-general opinions on TDC spending elsewhere in Florida ruled that placing an underwater artificial reef and buying land for a nature trail are allowable, Bondi noted.
"The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Florida Reef Tract are publicly owned, protected and managed marine environments open to the public for recreational and educational activities," the opinion says.
Billy Causey, southeast and Caribbean regional manager for the National Marine Sanctuary Program, endorsed the Coral Restoration Foundation's request.
The Coral Restoration Foundation and Mote Marine Laboratory have established offshore areas where broken and cloned corals are grown to a size at which they can be planted on damaged areas of the reef.
Nedimyer, working on his own, pioneered the process that has become an accepted method of reef restoration. His efforts earned him a CNN Environmental Hero award in 2010.
Mote and other organizations have taken up the coral-growing cause.