BOCC says include trailers in evacuation models

By Steve Estes

Monroe County’s elected commissioners were pretty adamant Wednesday that any new hurricane evacuation scenario would have to include mobile home residents as part of the permanent resident phase of storm evacuations.

Monroe County is under state mandate to keep the evacuation clearance time for permanent residents under 24 hours. Mandatory evacuation takes place for any hurricane forecasted to be Category 3 or above.

How much the time is less than 24 hours is the factor used by state officials to hand down new residential building permits. The further below 24 hours, the more residential unit allocations or ROGOs (Rate of Growth Ordinance) the county receives.

Several years ago, state and county officials agreed that Monroe County had exceeded the 24-hour mandate. To bring that clearance time back under 24 hours, the state gave the county permission to implement a phased evacuation process.

Under the phasing plan, transient units are ordered out 48 hours in advance of the onset of gale force winds. Twelve hours later, mobile home dwellers and those living in low-lying areas, generally considered to be below sea level, are ordered out. With 24 hours before the onset of gale force winds, permanent residents are ordered out.

And it is that last phase that must meet the 24-hour clearance time mandate.

Using road segment loading from current configurations, and using behavioral responses based on history, the current clearance time model shows 22.5 hours to evacuate the permanent residents of the Keys in the face of a Category 3 storm.

But that number didn’t exactly sit well with the Board of County Commissioners based as it was on assumptions they weren’t all sure they could agree with.

County and state planning officials have been working for most of the last two years on data-gathering to try and determine exactly what variables to use when running the newest evacuation model.

Variables include how many units will be occupied during hurricane season, how many of those residents will heed an evacuation call, and when those who heed the call will hit the road to the mainland.

The population of the Keys has fallen about 5,000 in the last 10 years, and the housing demographic has shifted from one of more full-time residents with families to one of more seasonal residents travelling to the Keys in the winter months to escape cold climates further north.

Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, a time when a majority of “snowbirds” are still in those colder climates.

And using the lesser variables of population, participation and storm intensity, the clearance model shows 22.5 hours needed to clear everyone who wants to clear.

That doesn’t include mobile home dwellers, however, which County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy says is unfair to those who live in mobile homes.

She says that the majority of mobile home dwellers are the “Keys’ workforce. They will be the last ones to leave as they are closing the shops, the restaurants, boarding up the houses for those who aren’t here.”

To believe that mobile home dwellers will take off 12 hours before those in site-built homes is one of the fallacies of the evacuation clearance model currently in use.

She was joined in that position by Commissioners Kim Wigington and Heather Carruthers.

Those three want state planners to add mobile home residents back into the mix for permanent resident evacuation clearance times.

And if that is done, county officials suddenly find themselves knocking on the door of the state mandate.

Monroe County receives 255 building allocations yearly, with the majority of those, 197, going to unincorporated Monroe. The rest are divvied out to the municipalities.

Evacuation clearance time drives the allocation of residential building permits. Should the county begin to approach the 24-hour limit, those allocations would become more scarce for new homes.

The current clearance time proposal will also drive building allocations well into the future.

Monroe County is an Area of Critical State Concern. As such, the state retains land use oversight. To be considered for removal from that designation, county officials must determine a build-out horizon where no more residential building can occur without exceeding the 24-hour limit.

By adding mobile home dwellers back into the equation, some officials predict that the county has only a few years left for new residential construction at the current pace.

“But it seems as though every time we get close to the 24-hour limit, they move the target in some fashion,” said Murphy.

The only sure-fire way for the county to retire development rights on the thousands of parcels deemed buildable is to buy the property.

Commissioners asked staff Wednesday for an estimate of what it would cost to do that in case its supply of new home allocations runs dry.

Before the housing boom became a bust, staff estimated it would cost more than $500 million to purchase all of the lots that could eventually be built on in the county.

No one has yet ventured a guess what that number might be with lower property prices.

“There are a lot of moving parts to this puzzle,” said Murphy. “But in the end the decision we as a commission make will either be about the safety of our people, or about the continuation of the amassing of the almighty dollar. We must make that decision the right one.”

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