React now to our need to buy land

By Steve Estes

As the economy slowly begins to improve, finally making headway against the downward pressure of the worst recession in decades, it will almost inevitably follow that development pressure on the Keys will begin again.

And that pressure will run headlong into the current project to establish a hurricane evacuation clearance time for the island chain that meets the state mandate of 24 hours for the permanent resident population.

Monroe County hasn’t been able to ensure that everyone in the Keys at any given time are able to get out of the way of a fast-moving, quick-forming hurricane in a couple of decades since the building boom of the 1980s and 1990s.

But with building allocations tied to the amount of time it takes less than 24 hours to clear everyone out of the way, there has been a lot of paperwork shuffling going on so as not to deplete the future home-building stock any more than has already been done.

So to make the 24-hour mandate, the state suggested we evacuate folks in two phases, with tourists and special needs folks going out first then followed by mobile home dwellers, and finally by what is termed site-built homes.

It is only the last set of folks the state cares about. They figure that since the paperwork says everyone else will already be gone, it’s only the last group we have to worry about getting caught in a raging storm on the single highway in and out of the Keys.

But the time is fast approaching when even the paperwork shuffle won’t allow us to meet the magical 24 hour number.

So we’ll probably move the standard backward when that happens, knowing that we are safely…on paper at least…able to get everyone out of the way. We’ll change the model assumptions again until we’re allowed 30 hours then 36 and we’ll demand that the storm wait until we’re darn and good and ready before it crashes ashore.

As ludicrous as that statement may seem, there’s nowhere left to go but with something ludicrous unless we grab ourselves by our own bootstraps and take control of an uncontrollable situation.

We make the 24-hour mandate this time out by shifting mobile home dwellers into the tourist phase of the evacuation procedure, ignoring the fact that they are as permanent as the rest of us and are usually some of the last ones gone due to financial considerations and work obligations taking care of the absentee owners’ homes.

If we count mobile homes where they should be, right alongside the site-built homes, we don’t make the 24-hour mandate. If we don’t make the 24-hour mandate, residential building allocations get cut off. Those get cut off and the county stands to face nearly $300 million in takings cases.

So our leaders will bend like the proverbial willow and change the rules to something that makes little sense in the real world rather than face that staggering sum.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t face it later on.

And with that in mind we must begin to consider how we will face that issue in a proactive rather than reactive way.

The only sure way to eliminate the takings risk a few years down the road is for some governmental agency to purchase the lands and extinguish the development rights.

That will be expensive, somewhere around $300 million in today’s dollars. The county doesn’t have that kind of money. The state doesn’t have that kind of money. The federal government won’t spend that kind of money. The three entities together won’t be able to pony up that much money to buy land here to ensure the safety of every man, woman and child in the face of a major storm that doesn’t play nice.

So we have the chance to do it ourselves…which is usually the way these things happen down here on this isolated string of islands.

The county has the option to start now to seek voter approval for a special tax, either through sales where our visitors pay half or so, or through property taxes, that is dedicated solely to the purchase of land in the Florida Keys.

By starting the process now, we could use a half-penny sales tax over the long haul to accomplish much of the goal and get some help from the state and feds, which we do get on a routine basis. Or we could establish a low-level special taxing district that goes against property tax to accomplish the goal sooner.

One of the problems with government ownership of land is that only the federal government pays any kind of taxes on land it owns, and that is an impact fee in lieu of taxes for the services that must be rendered by the local government to the land owned by the federal entity.

So we buy the land, donate it to the feds, and collect something in impact fees so we don’t lose everything from the tax rolls.

But only if we start now can we get ahead of the game. We hate taxes as much as the next person, but understand they are a necessary evil in some cases. This is one of those cases.

If we allow our leadership to keep moving the goal backwards, our children and grandchildren will face the very real possibility they will be forced to die in a major storm because they couldn’t get out.

And that is what is totally unacceptable compared to a few dollars a year now from each of us.

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