Carefully consider NROGO changes

By Steve Estes

County staff is currently working on a proposal to change the way commercial growth allotments are handled in Monroe County.

Based on long-time rules, Monroe gets a set number of residential building allocations yearly. That number is held down by the environmental sensitivity of the county, the amount of time it takes to get people safely out of here in the face of an onrushing major hurricane, and how much development our ecosystem can withstand before it begins to crumble and one of the natural wonders of the world becomes another rotting husk of its former self.

We are allowed 239 square feet of commercial footage for every residential allocation.

Ten years ago, that allocation was highly prized and fought over. With the downturn in the economy and the price of commercial land, the requests for the available commercial footage dwindled…so much so that we now have several hundred thousand square feet of available footage and few takers.

Well, no big takers except that big proposed strip mall on Rockland Key that would like to eat 400,000 to 500,000 square feet of the backlog.

So the staff plans to introduce some language that allows the footage quota each year to build and allow commercial developers to ask for banked allocations from the resulting pool.

Of course, there are certain limits, like 10,000 square foot buildings for new construction and up to 10,000 square feet for expansions, unless the developer asks for special dispensation for more footage, as the Rockland developers have done.

Or unless the building is in one of the many commercial center districts where larger buildings are allowed, or the original building is larger than 10,000 square feet, or….you get the picture.

For years, getting permission from the county to expand a small business by 400 or 500 square feet because business was good, or because business is good enough to need some additional storage or display space, has been a nightmare.

One of the reasons we have so much unclaimed commercial footage is that the process was so onerous few wanted to tackle it.

So we support and applaud the effort to make the process more user friendly, particularly when the economy is beginning to recover, the small businesses that are the backbone of the local economy are seeing the need for more space, and rampant growth has been brought under control by a sane group of elected officials.

And we support the focus of those small allocations being less onerous because it will help the small businesses who have long sought extra space achieve their growth goals, adding dollars to the economy and jobs to the market.

But we also must warn of unintended consequences by using overlay districts to target larger developments, chewing up the space available in a few developments and again locking out the small business that earns and spends its money here.

We must also caution staff to build in safeguards against large developments that will create traffic situations the locals find hard to live with.

For instance, the proposed Rockland development is planned for an area of US 1 that is already beset by traffic problems. The agreement being hammered out in its current form requires the developer to foot the cost to help solve the traffic issue before they start tossing up buildings that can only add to the problem.

This is a good step and one that should be carried over if any new language comes of the current proposal to streamline the system.

The new proposal also purports to hand out commercial allocations four times yearly instead of the current two.

With the lack of processing speed in our Growth Management Division, a historical, not just recent problem, issuing commercial allocations four times a year actually allows businesses to plan with something like a realistic schedule.

When residents chimed in on commercial growth, one of the things they felt might be a good thing was to allow local businesses already in existence to grab 1,000 square feet for expansion without going through the competitive process.

We didn’t see that proposal in the new language, but it’s a good way to make sure the small local folks here already are able to expand and compete with the bigger stores that are sure to come as the economy rebounds.

What we have seen thus far is a good beginning.

Let’s build on that.

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