Protect our community with overlay

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners Wednesday will get its first look at a proposed overlay zoning district for a large tract of land on Rockland Key.

The district is being proposed specifically to allow the development of a multi-unit shopping center with big box store national retailers as the anchors.

And with such approval comes another step in the road to making the Florida Keys Anywhere, USA.

We’re not sure that our visitors come here to shop at national discount stores they can find where they come here from. We believe instead that they come here to browse our quaint local shops with local merchandise, eat at our local eateries that feature local products, and peruse attractions found nowhere else in the world.

If they want to visit a shopping mall, they can stay home for that.

But the proposal, with some slight resistance, has pretty much sailed through the initial phases of approval to wind up on the plate of the county commission for the first time next week.

The proposal, if the developer gets their way, would allow big box stores of more than 200,000 square feet. If the county staff’s recommendations are followed, that limit wold be 140,000 square feet.

Our response to that is…what’s the difference?

The landowner has a right to make the most profitable use of his land. We stand staunchly behind that. The developer has a right to make money by building shopping centers. We stand staunchly behind that.

But we don’t think the county commissioners have the right to say they can put untold numbers of local businesses and restaurants out of businesses to increase the tax base of a currently underutilized piece of property.

Locals need places to shop. We believe that. But using the local stores, returning that money to the local market, is the way the Keys’ economy flourished in hard times. Handing over dollars to a multi-national retailer who will in turn take that money to other economies doesn’t seem to be a long-term vision that is good for us.

And there are some problems with the proposal.

The proposed location is one that already has some serious traffic flow issues, so serious in fact that if the rules for traffic flow are left unchanged, the development could never get off the ground.

So the staff is preparing, at the behest of the BOCC, to change those rules and make it easier for big-box stores to pick a favorable location for their business plan.

We couch that move in terms of preventing any future residential building moratorium as Big Pine saw for eight years in the mid-1990s and beyond. But regardless of the altruistic reasons for opening the door, it is nonetheless open.

Part of the proposal calls for the developer to fund multi-modal transportation transfer facilities, such as bus parking, taxi stands and the like. That should be a given on any major development in the Keys because we want to encourage mass transit.

The proposal also calls for a set aside of five percent of the total footage for public use, such as a library, a Sheriff’s substation, a public works satellite facility or other uses.

But what staff asked for was an actual building. What is being proposed is land for that size building.

Our concern is that the land will be dedicated in the most extreme reaches of the development, with limited means of ingress and egress, and probably paved over to use as overflow parking until the county government figures out a way to build something that can be used by the public.

The latter proposal at least, should be a mandate from the county to the developer. The community should see a turn-key ready building, free-standing or part of the overall concept, that is built to community specifications.

The developer wants some serious concessions from us. We need to get some from them.

Our greatest fear, however, is that the site-specific overlay district appears to be becoming the weapon of choice in performing end runs around the development regulations. We went through this eight or so years ago with the ubiquitous “380 agreement” whereby the county leaders could forego our development regulations by signing a contract.

The overlay sounds much like that. And it was abused.

Perhaps part of the conversation should be that overlay districts don’t become the norm for developers seeking to turn us into Anywhere, USA.

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