County expected to adopt clearance time agreement

By Steve Estes

The timing of Tropical Storm Isaac only serves to shine a fresh spotlight on Monroe County’s ongoing efforts to establish a hurricane evacuation clearance time.

The state mandates that Monroe County be able to get everyone out of the way of a major storm (Category 3 or above) in under 24 hours.

That scenario wasn’t needed this time around as officials did not call for an evacuation.

The 24-hour mandate has been in place for decades and in fact has been the driving force behind the county’s slow rate of growth that have kept it from becoming Miami Beach South.

The state will only issue a small number of residential building permits yearly so as not to exceed the carrying capacity of the Keys’ fragile ecosystem and to maintain an evacuation clearance time of less than 24 hours.

Some six, maybe seven years ago, state and local officials were forced to concede that they could no longer get everyone who might be inside the county’s borders out of harm’s way before a storm smashes ashore.

But there also remained several thousands of platted lots throughout the island chain that had some semblance, at least, of building rights, thus the state couldn’t, or wouldn’t, cease the already low flow of building allocations to the Keys.

So the state suggested that the county adopt a phased evacuation plan.

Under that phasing, visitors are ordered out 48 hours prior to the onset of tropical storm force winds. Mobile home residents are asked to leave 36 hours prior, and then permanent residents would be ordered out 24 hours prior to the onset of tropical storm force winds.

The limiting factors in that evacuation include the number of cars US 1 can handle in any given hour. That highway, two lanes across most bridges, is the only driving route out of the island chain until one hits upper Key Largo where Card Sound Road can also add to the evacuation flow.

Also bearing on the clearance time is the number of residential units that might be occupied during normal hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30, and the number of people in those occupied units that might decide to get out of town in the face of a major storm bearing down on the low-lying Keys.

How long it takes to get permanent residents out of the Keys under 24 hours, determines the number of building allocations that will continue to be doled here.

And that time is dwindling away fast.

Evacuation clearance time is an exercise that must be undertaken every 10 years with a new census. This time around, Monroe was one of only two counties in Florida that lost population.

But that still leaves the clearance time at just under 24 hours.

And to make that, the state had to override the county commission on who exactly gets placed in what phase of the evacuation process.

The new clearance model being used only allows for a double-phase evacuation instead of the three-phase the county has been operating under. In phase one, visitors, special needs residents and mobile home dwellers are asked to vacate the island chain. In the second phase, permanent residents, or what planners are calling site-built homes, are ushered out.

The county wanted to use numbers based on a Category Three storm. The state said no, it must use a Category Five storm. That changed the parameters for the percentage of people who would leave from about 70 percent to 95 percent.

The county commission wanted to include mobile homes in the second phase. The state, unwilling to live with the resulting clearance time, which would have been more than 24 hours, said no, only 1,250 mobile homes would be counted as permanent residents. That is how many mobile homes planners expect to be converted to site-built homes in the next 10 years before the clearance time must again be evaluated.

And with the final numbers that must now be agreed upon by the state, the county and the municipalities, the clearance time stands at somewhere between 23.5 hours and 24 hours.

That, says Growth Management Director Christine Hurley, allows for the same number of building allocations yearly for the next 10 years without the specter of an onslaught of land takings cases if the state is forced to cut off residential building.

It is assumed by the memorandum of understanding between the county’s government bodies and the state that the limited number of residential allocations, 356 per year, will not push the clearance time past the mandated 24 hours in the next 10 years.

Hurley had suggested that the state reduce allocations by 25 percent or 50 percent over the 10-year planning horizon to delay the point where the county and state could no longer come up with numbers to maintain the 24-hour clearance time ceiling and permits would be cut off without some action by the state Legislature.

Those stop-gap measures were rejected by state planners.

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners has voted to call evacuations 36 hours in advance of anticipated tropical storm force winds, but that doesn’t change the 24-hour mandate for clearance times. And the suggestion was shunted aside by the evacuation working group as a possible step to lengthening the mandate and allowing for even more building.

The only way to physically address maintaining clearance time at less than 24 hours is to cut off building permits for residential units, or increase the capacity of US 1 to disgorge vehicles into Florida City where the outbound options are increased.

County traffic consultants say that adding additional lanes to US 1 isn’t the only way to increase outbound traffic flow to lower clearance times. The county can work with FDOT to improve feeder road access at choke points where county roads meet the highway. Officials can also cone off lanes headed northbound and if necessary close all southbound lanes.

Another suggestion is to turn off all traffic control devices headed out of the island chain, eventually curve Card Sound Road to eliminate the stop at the Ocean Reef intersection and shut down all tolls for the duration of the evacuation cycle.

Some members of the evacuation working ground weren’t happy with the group’s final working premises.

Upper Keys activist John Hammerstrom said the MOU only serves to delay the inevitable and makes some dangerous assumptions about the storms that would force an evacuation.

According to statements from Hammerstrom, the evacuation scenarios assume that a major storm will be kind enough not to intensify rapidly, shift directions in any quirky fashion, speed up forward progress or form far enough away that the county will have 48 hours in every instance to clear people out of its path.

The BOCC is expected to approve the MOU at its Sept. 19 meeting, and the document should be approved by the state Administrative Commission in November.

Because the new models don’t cut off building allocations before the next census cycle, Hurley said it is unnecessary to calculate a build-out horizon for the Keys based on hurricane evacuation clearance times just yet, but that doing so might determine how far in the future the date might come when no more building allocations can be issued.

Prior to that date, Hurley suggests that the county establish a revenue stream dedicated to purchasing buildable lots rather than the more unbuildable environmental lots so that development rights on the thousands of platted lots that currently exist in the county can be extinguished.

She also says that county officials will have to try and get state and federal money behind the effort because the estimated cost of $300 million to purchase those lots, which will go up as property prices rebound, won’t be sustainable on the county’s budget.

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