No CBRS changes yet

By Steve Estes

County commissioners Wednesday decided that they want a more extensive review of what could happen if they were to change wording in the county’s land use comprehensive plan that currently prohibits the extension of public utilities into areas designated by the federal government as Coastal Barrier Resource Areas.

That discussion was sparked last month after the commission, again, discussed an ongoing legal battle with Keys Energy Services and 22 residents of No Name Key over the development of commercial power to the island.

Newly seated Commissioner Danny Kolhage asked staff to engage the current comprehensive plan consultant, a group already well on the way to a rewrite of the comprehensive land use plan, to look at what the unintended consequences might be if the county were to relax prohibitions against utility hook ups in CBRS areas, particularly in regard to the other 14 CBRS areas in the county.

But commissioners weren’t completely satisfied with the wording of the proposal brought forward Wednesday, eventually decided that the question was too narrow.

According to Growth Management Director Christine Hurley, the consultant, Keith and Schnarrs, has already attempted twice to bring forward discussions about changing the CBRS protections.

The BOCC said both times, according to Hurley, that they wanted to wait to have that discussion until the current litigation has run its course.

“While these policies are closely intertwined with No Name Key, they are beginning to affect the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District with their extension of central sewer into the 905 area,” said Hurley.

“If we take away the prohibitions, would there be more or less protection in the CBRS areas. Without the prohibition would Tier One properties be able to change to Tier Two or Tier Three-A,” she said.

Those are some of the questions that Hurley hopes to get answered, but the approval to expand the consultant contract will have to wait until at least next month as the Board of County Commissioners declined to give approval for the extra money Wednesday.

Several members of the audience who spoke against taking any action that would lessen the county’s protection of CBRS areas said that such a decision is exactly what power proponents on No Name Key have been banking on, that the county would back off form their land use policies when presented with an activated power grid on No Name Key.

“We all remember when the perception of Monroe County was that it would cave in to illegal actions by big money. That is the perception here,” said Alicia Putney, No Name Key resident. “Unlawful behavior should not be rewarded, the amount of money already spent on an illegal activity is irrelevant and changing the code to legitimize what may be an illegal action is not right.”

Commissioner Heather Carruthers said that any presumption of outcome from this study was erroneous.

“We need answers,” she said. “We don’t have a real understanding of what happens county wide if we take these actions.”

“My objective is not to relax anything,” said Commissioner Danny Kolhage. “Our CBRS codes failed us on No Name Key and we have a power grid. I want to make sure this can’t happen again. We have a problem when the state tells us we have no jurisdiction and we wind up getting development in sensitive areas.”

Mayor George Neugent was a little more adamant.

“The federal CBRS says discourage development. We went a step further to prohibit. After the US Fish and Wildlife Service said there was no impact to endangered species, this became a community battle between people with different visions. We inserted ourselves into that battle and I don’t want the BOCC or the county residents to be put in the crosshairs,” said Neugent.

Naja Girard of Last Stand said that the county would still be better off waiting for a decision in the courts.

“The consultant’s analysis will be better if they know where the county’s jurisdiction begins and ends, an answer that could be supplied by the courts soon,” said Girard.

Hurley is expected to bring back a new scope of services probably at the March meeting in Marathon by which time the Third District Court of Appeals may have ruled.

That court is reviewing the decision by Circuit Judge David Audlin that only the Public Service Commission can decide the fate of power grids throughout the state. If the appeals court sides with the county, Audlin will get the case back. If it rules with Keys Energy, the fight could move on to the PSC.

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