County hopes to settle issues in 2013

By Steve Estes

As 2013 becomes another year just around the corner, there will be some continuing hot button issues facing Monroe County, some partial resolutions to some hot button issues, and some new ones cropping up.

County leaders will, either through the courts or through their own actions, will finally, maybe, possibly, then again possibly not, put to rest the two-plus-decade old issue of electrification of No Name Key, and with that possibly open the door to public infrastructure in other environmentally sensitive areas.

Should the Board of County Commissioners agree to change the language surrounding Coastal Barrier Resource Systems in the county, Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District will extend public sewers up 905, and the Cudjoe Regional may expand into some areas where it is currently prohibited to issue building permits.

“Now that we have a multitude of issues facing us in that regard, it’s a discussion we have to have on a policy level very soon,” said Gastesi.

The Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System will at long last get some pipes in the ground.

But there will also be some changes in the county’s oft maligned building department.

County Administrator Roman Gastesi has grown increasingly unhappy with the performance of his building department. Contractors and private individuals have groused for years about the inefficient, slow service from the department, so much so that Gastesi threatened late in 2012 to begin the process of researching privatization of the department to try and make it more responsive.

“But what we found was something we hadn’t anticipated,” he said. “It seems as though our front counter staff is doing a fairly good job, and we have some new systems coming on line to help them be more efficient and more responsive.”

The hold up, he says, appears to the “back of the house” where reviews are often complicated by the plethora of state and federal agencies who have a hand in all types of development in the Keys.

And that issue, he said, should be alleviated with the addition of some on-call professionals.

“I don’t think we need to privatize the department yet. What we intend to do is hire some on-call personnel qualified to do reviews and inspections and have them fill in when we get really busy, or when we get short staffed. That should prevent permits sitting on the same desk for days when the reviewer or inspector has to research how the issue must be handled under the guidelines of some other agency,” he said.

County staffers also will begin the process of revamping the county’s land acquisition strategies.

Every year the county spends millions on buying property to retire it from the potential development pool.  That’s a dual-edged sword for the county as it protects environmentally sensitive areas from future development pressures and gets rid of a few building rights that will lend themselves to pressures against the coming build-out of the Keys, but it also takes taxable property off the roles.

Finding money to buy the property the county needs to buy in the next 10 to 20 years is a topic for discussion “now, probably yesterday, definitely tomorrow,” said Gastesi.

And while the recently extended one-cent infrastructure sales tax looks like an easy mark for a funding stream, Gastesi says he’s not fond of using that source.

“There are other places to find money for that, we just have to get creative and more aggressive,” he said. “We have a lot of infrastructure needs in the county starting with wastewater, going on to roads and bridges, canal restoration, facilities enhancement and maintenance, public access to waterfronts and many more.”

Gastesi sais the staff is already putting together a list of potential infrastructure projects to prioritize after the completion of wastewater projects, “and quite frankly, there won’t be enough money to go around. Adding another need to the queue isn’t something we should look at right now.”

But, he adds, the BOCC will make those decisions ultimately.

County leaders must also continue to discuss ways to bring hurricane evacuation clearance times down in the future. Right now, the state says there are no more than 3,500 residential building allocations left in the Keys until local residents won’t be able to get out of the way of a major storm.

Once that happens, the county faces the potential of tens of millions of dollars in either land acquisitions to buy the remaining buildable lots, or tens of millions of dollars in land takings cases for not allowing building on those lots.

“We are discussing various strategies now,” said Mayte Santamaria, county planner. “We’re developing potential systems for allocation transfer from vulnerable areas in the Lower Keys to less vulnerable areas in the Upper Keys. We’re working with the Department of Transportation on prioritizing road improvements that can aid in hurricane evacuation. We’re beginning to talk to the state about building shelters inside the county,” she said.

She agrees that finding a way to increase the money available to the county land authority to buy lots with building rights is a priority.

“We have come a long way in the last three years, but there are still some serious issues out there that we need to address,” said Gastesi. “And time stops for no man. We have to get these discussions on the front burner and keep them there.”

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