Start preparing now for build out

By Steve Estes

As the time nears when Monroe County and state officials will settle on a final hurricane evacuation clearance time, so also draws closer the time when that number will be used to determine at what point Monroe County can no longer build new homes without jeopardizing the safety of its people in the face of a major storm.

The number of new homes that can be built is directly tied to the time it takes to get all those people out of the county before a major storm starts blowing nasty winds across our bow. The less time it takes to evacuate people, the more homes can be built.

But no one still believes that the number of possibles isn’t dwindling quickly.

The county has for years walked a tight wire between managing growth to ensure resident safety where there’s only one road out of town, and dodging issues with paying people monumental sums for making their buildable lots useless.

Thus far it has walked that wire successfully.

But the end is coming. It might be eight years, it might be 18 years. But we will have an ending horizon by the end of this year—at which time we will know the dreaded build out scenario.

One thing that gets forgotten in the rush to determine the number of allocations left is that there are already several hundred requests for those allocations in the pipeline. Those current requests will come right off the top of the final number of available allocations.

When times were good, the county spent money on several nice-to-have projects that made elected leadership and the people who live here feel good about our conditions.

But times aren’t so good now, and money is tight for even basic services. That doesn’t push the build out window any further out into the future.

The only sure way to eliminate the possibility of hundreds of millions in takings claims that will bankrupt future generations is to purchase buildable land and retire the bui8lding rights on that land until the remaining housing allocations match the lots upon which those houses can be built.

That’s an expensive proposition. It could be expensive to the tune of half a billion dollars, probably less.

That’s a lot of money, particularly for a county with a small population.

So let’s get started.

The county has spent millions every year buying conservation lands. But they buy large chunks of land that is probably useless to a home builder.

We have to change our thinking.

We have to start targeting larger parcels where residential development can occur and pour our currently limited resources into buying those lots and eliminate them from the pool of possibilities.

Estimates are that nearly 10,000 lots still exist where residential development is possible, even if daunting for the property owner.

Buildable lots in the Keys sell for upwards of $75,000 on average. That’s a lot of money.

But it’s money we have to start finding.

If the state is going to tell us we can’t exceed 24 hours, and they should for public safety, then we have to be on them at every turn to send us some bucks to buy some of that potentially buildable land. We have to be on the federal government at every turn to cut loose some grant money for conservation that includes targeting potentially buildable lots.

And we have to start looking at our own wallets, even to the point where we approve a special assessment that goes for nothing except buying buildable lots.

Of course, this is a two-edged sword. As we buy lots, we make the remaining lots more valuable, driving up what we have to pay for them.

And we also decreased the number of lots actually paying the special assessment because we don’t collect tax dollars from publicly owned lands.

That’s why more delay will not serve our best interests.

Our elected leadership needs to change its tactics and start targeting land purchases that will put us beyond that magical build out number. The money collected from tourists in bed taxes is one of the sources. Spend it all there.

The requested extension of the infrastructure sales tax is another possibility. Let’s ask for 30 years instead of 15 years and dedicate the extra 15 years to a pot of money designed to get these buildable lots off the books.

We have both the privilege and the misfortune to live in a place where many others want to be. And we live in a place where one major hurricane could cost lives if we don’t do what needs to be done.

It’s a fine line we have to walk. The sooner we get started, the sooner we’ll get to the end of the road.

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