Money shouldn’t be a thoughtBy Steve Estes
It seems as though there is always an unintended consequence attached to a statement made that at first glance appears to carry a great deal of common sense.
Such is the case with a statement made by new District One County Commissioner Danny Kolhage at last Wednesday’s Board of County Commissioner’s meeting.
The board was debating the issue of electrification of No Name Key. That’s a subject that has consumed a lot of time and effort from a lot of people over the last 20 years, probably a lot more time and effort than the tiny, remote island off the northeast shore of Big Pine Key warrants, with its herd of endangered Key Deer and 43 homes.
So let us set the stage.
The BOCC was debating whether to move forward on attempting to approve a settlement of the myriad of legal cases currently surrounding the electrification issue. The settlement offered by No Name Key homeowners was an obvious non-starter, mostly because it required the BOCC to come to a final conclusion to ignore or change its current prohibition against public utilities on the island for a payoff of ending the legal disputes surrounding the power grid on island.
That grid is already there. Using a state statute that exempts utilities from county oversight in public rights-of-way, and using funding supplied by 25 of the 43 homeowners, Keys Energy Services put up power poles and strung lines to service the 43 homes. In doing so, the utility strung wires across county-owned lots without benefit of an approved easement by the BOCC, and for its trouble has now been hit with a civil trespass suit by the county.
But the 25 residents of the island who desperately want power put more than $600,000 in Keys Energy’s pocket to build that grid that at the moment goes nowhere.
The lines don’t energize homes because the county has a valid ordinance on its books that prohibits the extension of public utilities to or through areas designated as a federal Coastal Barrier Resource System. No Name Key carries that designation for much of its acreage, and none of the grid would be possible without going through a CBRS area somewhere along the way.
So the county is claiming it cannot legally issue building permits for the residents to hook into the lines.
And Kolhage says that common sense should prevail and because the poles and lines are there, running within feet of some of the homes, and the residents put more than $600,000 out of pocket to put those things where they are, the county should simply back down and give the folks their permits if doing so wouldn’t significantly cause other problems in other areas.
His common sense approach was that it seemed like a huge waste of money to deny permits with a working grid already in place. And would be a huge waste of money to force the grid to be removed.
Commendable sentiments those.
Here come the potential unintended consequences.
Keys Energy put up the grid without county permission. It had a right to do that in established rights-of-way, but it didn’t stay in those rights-of-way. That makes the grid potentially unlawful under county code and state statute. Issuing permits without changing the prohibition would be an unlawful act under county code and state statute.
Let’s think for a moment about other areas of land use where the county cares not one iota about the money invested by a property owner before the lawful nature of the action has been determined.
During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, thousands of homeowners built enclosures under their homes. Many of them were built without first obtaining the requisite approvals.
And regardless of the thousands of dollars those homeowners may have spent on constructing an enclosure below base flood, even if just for storage and a rec room for the family, or a man cave, or some other innocuous purpose, because those homeowners built without prior approval, the county forced them to spend sometimes tens of thousands more to tear out those enclosures to bring the unit into compliance with county code.
Multiply the number of times that scenario has played out, and the $600,000 spent for No Name Key’s power grid pales greatly in comparison. It is estimated that tearing out enclosures, often purchased with the house by someone who didn’t build it, has been a cottage industry in the Keys worth millions.
So where’s the justice in that?
We have a group of people who often unknowingly bought something in existence, paying a hefty price for it, too, with the intent to use it, only to be forced to get rid of the unlawful space at their own expense.
And we have another group of homeowners who may have paid for a power grid that is potentially unlawful, and were told by the county that they couldn’t get the final hook up and went ahead and spent the money anyway, and we want to reward them for that action by changing the policy.
That leaves common sense out in the cold.
If how much one spends on an unlawful enterprise is a gauge for fairness, or how much one spends in preparation for an act that can’t be consummated is a checkpoint for making decisions, then the Keys will be lost to the deep-pocketed sooner rather than later.
We would think that telling 4,000 people they must, at their own expense, rip out a unit that at one time was probably lawful, just because they did it without the requisite permissions in place, or, in many cases someone else did it without the requisite permissions in place accounts for a much larger expenditure of taxpayer money than Kolhage is currently concerned about on No Name Key.
We like Kolhage. He will be a good commissioner. But this was not his finest hour.