Wednesday afternoon the Monroe Board of County Commissioners voted to grant Mote Marine Laboratory a non-residential rate of growth ordinance (NROGO) exemption for Mote’s Florida Keys research facility located at 24244 Overseas Highway, Summerland Key.

Mote leaders announced the exciting plans for the expansion of its research facilities on Summerland Key in February during a special celebration of the organization’s 60th Anniversary.

The NROGO exemption is one of the last big steps before submitting the final permit to build the new cutting edge research facility with intentions to break ground January 2016.

“The design of the project occurs in four phases, conceptual design, schematic design, design development and competition of all construction documents. We are currently half way through the last phase,” said Glenn Darling, architect at Hall Architects.

The next step in the design phase is to complete all construction documents and submit them to the building department of Monroe County. Once approved, the County will issue a building permit and partial demolition will begin.

The expansion will involve constructing one new building on Mote’s existing property on Summerland Key, which currently includes three buildings. The two residential buildings will be demolished, leaving the current working lab fully operational throughout construction. Once the new project is 99 percent complete, the old lab will be demolished and replaced with parking.

“The important thing to remember is that we’ve worked very hard to ensure that the construction will minimize impact to the heart of Mote’s Summerland Key facility, which is its lab,” Darling said.

The new building will be designed to enhance the organization’s scientific and educational infrastructure, allowing it to expand research programs focused on restoring damaged reefs and on finding new ways to deal with the challenges that are occurring as a result of climate change and ocean acidification. The building will be an environmentally sustainable LEED-certified facility that will more than double Mote’s research and education space.

The NROGO exemption will provide the infrastructure relief Mote needs to continue to expand the impacts of the organization’s critical research addressing some of the most pressing ocean challenges — particularly the global threats facing coral reefs such as ocean acidification and climate change— and it hosts and supports the work of approximately 150 non-resident scientists from over 60 different U.S. and international institutions, while playing a key role in studies worldwide.

The new facility will include advanced technology laboratories; environmental control rooms; new seawater systems; ocean acidification research support infrastructure; experimental tanks and instrumentation to support diverse fields of marine science studies; dormitories, offices, classrooms and meeting rooms with full communications connectivity.

“We are grateful for the County’s decision to approve this exemption, which will help us move toward our goal of breaking ground in January 2016 for this cutting edge international center for coral reef research,” said Dr. Michael P. Crosby, Mote President and CEO. “This new research facility in the Florida Keys will significantly enhance our ability to serve as a center of excellence in marine science, education and conservation-addressing the global threats facing coral reefs. Florida has the only barrier coral reef along the continental U.S., which helps attract millions of visitors and contributes about $6.3 billion to Florida’s economy. We also depend on our marine ecosystems for food, medicine, tourism, art and quality of life. This new facility will not only focus on allowing us to better understand the impacts of disease and climate change on corals, but it will also mitigate these threats by directly supporting the restoration of Florida’s coral reefs.”

Mote researchers have recently developed innovative science-based technology to restore Florida’s coral reefs. Today, researchers at Mote’s Summerland Key research facility are growing thousands of coral fragments in nurseries in the wild using naturally occurring generic strains that are believed to most likely survive changing ocean conditions.

One of the most recent breakthroughs has been the development of a new coral “re-skinning” process that allows scientists to restore large areas of reef-building corals in just one to two years instead of hundreds of years it might take nature to rebuild a reef on its own. The cutting edge technology of re-skinning allows small fragments of brain, boulder and star coral to rapidly fuse back together to form new coral head over the dead skeleton.

“These techniques give us confidence that full-scale restoration is possible in our lifetime," said Dr. Dave Vaughan, Executive Director of Mote’s research facility in the Florida Keys. "Sadly, during the last 40 years, our indigenous corals have declined in some areas by more than 90 percent, with some species losing more than 97 percent of their populations. Yet now, more than ever before, we find ourselves in need of new facilities to continue our research. Our reefs cannot wait any longer, and when this new research facility on Summerland Key opens in 2017, Mote will have an even greater impact on proactively understanding the threats faced by coral reefs and how to replenish them significantly faster than they can replenish themselves in the wild.”

In a peer-reviewed scientific paper published Oct. 21, 2015 on growing coral larger and faster, two Mote scientists, a scientist from the Division of Aquatic Resources in Hawaii and a scientist from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology learned that after 139 days, they were able to increase star coral in size by as much as 329 percent.

Mote’s coral reef researchers are dedicated to monitoring, understanding and restoring coral reefs by working independently and by partnering in science-based reef-related projects with many organizational including the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Nature Conservancy, Florida universities, community volunteer groups and others.

“Florida’s reefs are a focal point of Mote’s mission,” Crosby said. “Coral restoration is a priority of Mote’s world-class research focused on the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean’s natural resources. As the southernmost marine laboratory in the continental U.S., Mote’s research facility in the Florida Keys is uniquely positioned to support the combined efforts of Florida, our nation and our international colleagues to study and restore our coral reef ecosystems and those around the world.”

Engaging the local community with coral reef restoration research initiatives is an important vehicle for growing the level of understanding by the broader public on the threats faced by corals.

Mote has worked hard to earn competitive funding for research and infrastructure upgrades — for instance in 2014 Mote received a major grant from the National Science Foundation to equip climate change and ocean acidification lab areas at the Florida keys research facility that will serve countless cutting-edge studies and education programs.

The Gardener Foundation, a Sarasota-based private foundation, has seen the need for a new research facility now and is helping Mote kick-off its Florida Keys expansion through the significant initial investment of $5 million given as a temporary loan because they are confident that the community will support Mote’s efforts to raise these urgently needed funds.

Mote can only realize its vision fully with support from the community.

Mote is currently seeking private donations from individuals and organizations to help achieve its goal of restoring reefs in Florida and worldwide. Fundraising initiatives for marine research and community research partnerships, like Mote’s Oceans of Opportunity campaign are a great place to start.

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