Where to after we reach build-out?

By Steve Estes

In the not-too-distant future, Monroe County and the Florida Department of Transportation will have to find ways to increase the number of vehicles that can be handled by US 1.

Or, the two entities will have to say there can be no more building on the island chain.

The number of residential units that can be built in the Florida Keys has for decades been tied to the ability of emergency managers to clear the county of live people within 24 hours.

When the threat of continual and unaffordable land takings cases began to become a distinct possibility because only so many cars can traverse US 1 in a set period of time, the county and state changed the clearance time procedures to make them two-phase.

When that threat again began to be felt, the two agencies decided to shuffle some numbers, decrease the occupancy numbers, decrease the participation rates, and keep the flow of residential building permits going.

Those changes will, according to the newest evacuation scenarios, allow the state to continue to issue 355 residential building permits dispersed amongst the various governments in the county for the next 10 years.

And then?

At some point, agree officials from both local and state governments, the Florida Keys will reach the point where living people can’t get out of the Keys before landfall of a major storm and run the risk of becoming dead people.

At that point the residential building allocation well will dry up. That is the point called build out.

After the Governor and Cabinet accept the annual work plan report in January, due each year by virtue of the Keys’ designation as an Area of Critical State Concern, the magical number currently being looked at as a build out point is 3,550.

“But we don’t know yet if that’s a hard number,” said county Growth Management Director Christine Hurley. “What that means is that we will continue to receive residential allocations at the current rate for the next 10 years, and then we will reevaluate with current data.”

But even if that number isn’t etched in stone as yet, it’s probably not far from it, admits Hurley.

And that raises the question of how the county deals with the remaining lots deemed fully or partially buildable under county code, estimated to be in the neighborhood of 7,000-plus.

“That’s a discussion that we (staff) have already been told to have by the Board of County Commissioners,” said Hurley.

The BOCC says it wants options on the table on how to handle the issue, and would rather have them sooner than later as everyone agrees it will be a relatively expensive proposition.

The only sure-fire way to eliminate building rights on those lots that get left over after build out is achieved is for some government agency to buy those lots and extinguish the building rights.

That’s a purchase that could cost the taxpayer, or a group of taxpayers, about $64 million in today’s economy, probably more than that over the next 10 years as Keys’ property values begin to inch back up from the depths of the housing bust.

About a decade ago, Monroe County talked about ways to get current or future property owners to help them with the cost of extinguishing building rights without the need to have a governmental agency buy the land and remove it from the tax rolls, which would have the unintended consequence of making the remaining property’s tax bills higher.

Those who want to build can buy extra lots and rise to the top of the building allocation list more rapidly, and there are programs where adjoining property owners can split the cost of a vacant lot and extinguish the building rights because the lot size no longer meets minimum standard.

But those programs have proven to be far from a resounding success, as is evidenced by the estimated 7,000-plus lots that will remain after this 10-year run.

Of course, officials can always agree to change the 24-hour mandate for evacuation clearance time to something higher, or disentangle building allocations from hurricane evacuation altogether, but that doesn’t change the findings of the Keys’ Carrying Capacity Study from more than six years ago that flatly stated the island chain’s ecological capacity to survive more building had already been exceeded.

“We haven’t sent any options to the board as yet,” said Hurley. “But that’s a conversation we need to have very soon.”

Some are looking at the recently passed infrastructure sales tax extension as a future pot of money to buy buildable lots, after it pays for the remaining sewer projects, catches up on a $30 million-plus backlog in road and bridge maintenance and helps pay for stormwater control.

But the extension of that tax has a life of just 15 years beginning in 2018. The money from that fund is already promised for wastewater uses until then, and some will be promised for wastewater beyond that.

It has also been suggested that Monroe County may have to bite the bullet and implement a special taxing district on real property of a small millage that goes only toward the purchase of buildable lots.

And if that is the route chosen, county officials would have to implement that district soon in order to raise the needed money before the next decade passes and the mark is hit.

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