Land buys are program focus

By Steve Estes

County staff is just now beginning work on a potential program that, if approved eventually by voters, could down the road save tens of millions of dollars in potential land takings rulings.

Once the state Administration Commission, comprised of the Governor and his cabinet, meets in a few weeks and accepts the county’s annual work program, it is conceivable the cap on further human development in the Keys will be set.

Residential development here is capped by the county’s ability to get everyone out of the island chain within 24 hours in the face of a major, life-threatening storm.

Under the parameters of the recently concluded hurricane evacuation clearance time study, at the current rate of residential growth allowed by the state, there are 10 years of residential permits left before that magic threshold is reached.

Even if further refinements are made such as decreasing the number of yearly permits or making significant improvement to the amount of traffic US 1 can handle in a major evacuation, there is still a finite number.

Once that number is exceeded, the county will have to stop issuing residential building permits, opening it up to a host of takings cases from people who bought land here with the intention to build a home for whatever reason and are then no longer able to do that.

The current market value of undeveloped land in the Keys is more than $500 million. Permits between then and now will decrease that value as will commercial development to support that residential growth. But escalating land prices, which is historically the norm here, will bring that number back up some.

So no one is sure how much land will need to be bought when the development must end.

So staff, aware that the issue is out there on the horizon, is working on a plan to develop a stable, dedicated funding source that allows the county to purchase buildable land now, before the end comes.

The general outline of the plan is to ask the county’s voters to approve a special taxing district through referendum. Money from that district will go specifically toward purchasing potentially buildable land to erase the specter of a takings case in the future.

There are a lot of moving parts to the program, says Commissioner Danny Kolhage, even though the commission has yet to see even a rough outline of what staff is eventually going to propose.

“It’s an interesting concept. I’ll wait to see what’s presented,” said Kolhage.

Other counties in Florida have established similar programs with voter blessing, one in Miami-Dade and one in Lee County among others. The former was a two-year program that raised about $90 million. The latter is a 20-year program. And both were focused on purchasing land for conservation so that the respective areas couldn’t become total concrete jungles during the next building boom.

Monroe’s program would probably have to take a different approach since growth here is constrained by the amount of egress available before a storm by the long sliver of highway we call US 1.

“It might seem like a long way off in the future, but how we get where we need to be when the permits run dry is a discussion that must start sooner rather than later because 10 years really isn’t that long when you’re talking about raising the kind of money we need for such a program,” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi in an earlier conversation.

Staff has started the conversation with a half-mil proposal. That same amount raises about $9 million per year for the Monroe County School Board.

There are other concerns with the program as well as property is purchased by the county. That land comes off the tax rolls resulting in no income for the county and shrinking the pool of available tax-paying properties. The collections would be limited by the annual property assessments.

Staff hasn’t discussed what the time frame is for presentation to the Board of County Commissioners, but such referendums are generally held in conjunction with a Presidential election, the next of which is 2016.

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