Corral ’em
New plan forces owners to keep cats in

By Steve Estes

Property owners in Monroe County who own lots upon which they wish to build may have to promise the county and the federal government that they won’t own cats that will roam outside.

The county last month approved implementing a mitigation program for endangered species impacts that will require folks who want to build new homes that are located in one of several endangered species focus areas or buffer areas to sign a deed restriction that will prohibit their ownership of a cat unless they promise that cat will remain indoors and not wander around among the endangered species.

That was just one of the mitigation measures the county promised to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency to avoid a possible suspension from the National Flood Insurance Program.

The county was forced by the federal courts to be the line of first defense for species protection last year when USFWS and FEMA settled a two-plus-decade-old lawsuit with environmental groups.

The environmentalists had claimed that FWS was abdicating its responsibility to endangered species by continuing to allow FEMA to issue federally subsidized flood insurance policies for human development in sensitive habitat areas. A federal court judge agreed with that assertion and set the two federal behemoths to establishing a policy to better protect the many endangered species that call Monroe County home.

The federal agencies and the groups that brought the suit came to an agreement last year, an agreement that said Monroe County would enforce the Endangered Species Act or lose federal flood insurance and the millions of dollars that come with it for pre-storm mitigation and post-storm debris removal and repairs.

Of course, many property owners may also have lost mortgages or been forced to purchase much more expensive flood insurance as federally backed mortgages are tied to the purchase of flood insurance.

“This requirement applies only to new construction,” said Growth Management Director Christine Hurley. “And it only applies if the property is within one of the species focus areas where the species exist or the buffer areas.”

Exempted from the requirement are lots where a canal or US 1 separates the land from the affected area and subdivisions that are deemed to be more than 60 percent built out and low on the sensitivity scale for species habitat.

That exemption would probably rule out the restriction in such areas as Breezeswept Beach Estates on Ramrod Key where the silver rice rat has been an issue in the past.

The cat requirement will become a deed restriction on the property that will carry forward through successive owners.

Hurley said that enforcement of the restriction will be handled on a complaint basis, with owners possibly required to give up cats if they repeatedly allow the animals to roam free in sensitive habitat areas.

The requirement will not be in effect on Big Pine and No Name Keys where an Incidental Take Permit already exists that plans for the mitigation of cat predation on endangered species. The Habitat Conservation Plan for those two islands was signed by FWS and the county about eight years ago.

FWS has been asking the county for almost a decade to implement a feral cat trapping program in areas where cat predation can affect endangered species, a plea the county has thus far ignored.

There are other regulations the county implemented with the new flood plain development ordinance.

Some of those regulations included new fencing guidelines for sensitive habitat areas outside Big Pine and No Name Keys. Those new guidelines were scaled back from the original versions and include a prohibition against fencing any Key Deer movement corridor, any freshwater wetland, and fencing that will impact previously unscarified sensitive habitat.

Fences in habitat buffer zones will no longer be allowed to encompass the entire parcel, just the buildable area of the lot. That buildable area is lessened by the required setbacks in the front, back and side yards.

The county was given a maximum acreage amount for species impacts throughout the county, a number that at first kept officials from approving the new regulations for ear of what many thought could be more than $65 million in takings cases when the impact allowance was breached.

But with the changes to exemptions for lots with separation and build-out levels, that number has become more manageable, said Hurley.

She said the federal agency also agreed to allow for impacts to be mitigated either through like-kind habitat restoration or through payment of fees into a mitigation bank to allow the county to purchase or restore sensitive habitat.

“The changes are much less onerous on the taxpayer than they were initially,” said Hurley.

While county staff and FEMA officials have been discussing the new regulations for more than a year, the federal agency still hasn’t signaled formal acceptance of the proposal and the regulations can’t be set in stone until that occurs and the state Department of Economic Development has accepted the changes.

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