Over limit
Mobiles push evacuation time beyond 24 hours

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners last month decided that the phased hurricane evacuation clearance time should include mobile home residents as part of the second phase.

That would add some 4,500 single-family units to the second phase of the evacuation procedure for storms Category Three and above.

The state Department of Economic Opportunity, which is working on an agreement with the county on occupancy and participation percentages, has suggested that the county do away with the latter half of phase one, where mobile homes are now required to evacuate, and instead put the mobile homes in with the first phase with tourists and special needs residents.

DEO has also specified that the county will use a Category Five storm, wind speeds 155 miles-per-hour or above, as a baseline to model evacuation clearance times.

The difference between what the county commission says it wants, and what DEO says it wants, is literally the difference between meeting the Keys’ 24-hour clearance time mandate and not meeting the mandate.

And that difference could mean an end to future residential building permits in the Keys.

Adding mobile homes, even at the reduced occupancy rates used in the model because hurricanes happen when snowbirds generally aren’t present, puts Monroe County over the 24-hour limit. Future residential building allocations are tied to the amount of time it takes under 24 hours to evacuate the Keys. The less time it takes, the more permits can be issued for a longer period.

By putting mobile homes in phase one, as the state wants, the model run claims it takes 23 hours to evacuate the Keys in the face of a Category Five storm.

That hour keeps residential building permits flowing, at least for now.

The stated purpose of finding a common ground on assumptions and a model run that everyone agrees with is to find out what the true build-out horizon is for the Keys, build-out being the point beyond which local leaders can no longer safely get everyone out of the way of a major storm.

The Keys went beyond the 24-hour limit many years ago and implemented the current phased evacuation plan that takes tourists and mobile home dwellers out of the equation and uses only those permanent residents living in what is termed site-built homes.

As the 24-hour limit approached again, leaders began a long process to study how many of those remaining homes were occupied during hurricane season and how many people would actually heed a mandatory evacuation call.

And those numbers are now under fire from some.

“When we did the survey for mobile homes to determine participation rates, only one mobile home park responded,” said Growth Management Director Christine Hurley. “When we surveyed site-built homes, we only got 60 responses. That might be too small a representative sample to determine if our participation rates are accurate enough for our purposes.”

Hurley is suggesting that the county do a more intensive survey, including door-to-door visits if necessary, to get a more representative sampling and see if the assumptions currently under discussion are valid.

The reason the assumptions are important, again, is that clearance time must come in at no more than 24 hours or the county loses all residential building allocations.

County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said she believes too much is made of the modeling process.

“There are variables the model doesn’t deal with,” she said. “We don’t know if growth will continue at the current rate, we don’t know if the Keys will continue to be as popular a ‘final’ destination as it has been.”

The working group that has been chasing this issue for more than a year has discussed moving the clearance time from 24 hours to 30 hours, a move that never sees an end in paperwork shuffles, says citizen activist John Hammerstrom.

“Every time the goal gets close, we move the goal posts,” said Hammerstrom. “That’s not the way to provide for public safety.”

Hurley has asked the state to run some more models before the working group meets again on June 8.

She wants to see what happens when only 50 percent of the mobiles are added to phase two, and only 25 percent are added to phase two. There are about 8,500 mobile homes in the Keys. Occupancy on those units is currently stated at about 60 percent during hurricane season, although the model does not run the heavy traffic weeks of July 4, Labor Day, Fantasy Fest or Thanksgiving, all of which are within the dates of hurricane season June 1 to Nov. 30.

To make the last of the residential allocations last longer and delay potential land takings suits which could rise to $300 million in today’s dollars, more if land prices begin to rise again by any substantial amount, Hurley has asked for a build-out scenario using 50 percent and 25 percent of today’s allocations.

Monroe County receives 355 allocations yearly. It has been estimated that with the current clearance time, those allocations would run against build-out in as little as six years. Cutting back on the number of allocations would stretch out the time frame in which the county could draw up a plan to deal with those properties that would no longer be buildable.

There might be a couple of ways to deal with that, but the only sure way to eliminate building rights is to have a government entity purchase the land.

According to Hurley, there is about $300 million in taxable land right now that could have building rights.

In her presentation coming Tuesday during a special Board of County Commissioners meeting, Hurley suggests that the infrastructure sales tax extension the county is seeking from the voters to pay for wastewater be turned toward property acquisition when the sewers are complete. She also suggests that the county could establish a special taxing district by voter referendum that would go strictly toward land purchases and possibly avoid a huge round of private property land takings cases when the building allocations eventually run out.

Hurricane evacuation will be a central point discussed Tuesday when the BOCC meets in special session. The commissioners are also expected to act on other land use matters including some land use issues with Naval Air Station Key West and to hear a presentation on the progress of the county’s revamp of its comprehensive land use plan.

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