County seeks revenue stream for land buys

By Steve Estes

Thursday Monroe County’s leadership was in Tallahassee to present the annual work program to the Administrative Commission, made up of the Governor and his elected cabinet.

The annual work program is a snapshot of what the county has done in the past year to achieve the end result of having itself removed from the area of critical state concern list.

Tops on that list are completion of advanced wastewater treatment systems throughout the county, maintaining at least a 24-hour hurricane evacuation clearance time for permanent residents, and strategies for protecting environmentally sensitive lands.

“We made great strides on the first two,” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi during an on-air interview Wednesday.

“We broke ground on the Cudjoe Regional wastewater system. We addressed hurricane evacuation clearance times,” he said.

That leaves the final piece of the puzzle to be addressed going forward.

And that promises to be one sticky issue.

Based on the newly adopted hurricane evacuation model, Monroe County is slated to receive 3,550 more residential building permits over the next 10 years. After that, the model predicts the county will have exceeded its ability to clear everyone out of here in 24 hours in the face of a major hurricane.

The county will have reached what is referred to as “build out.”

Once that build out plateau has been reached, there will still be more than 5,000 platted lots in the Keys with residential development rights.

With no more permits, some governmental agency faces the possibility of tens of millions in takings cases from those left out in the cold unable to build.

Local officials, having been told that the state will not take part, and having been told that the federal government, a large landowner here, will not stand up for takings defense, know that the onus will fall on the local taxpayer.

Thus the need to figure out some way to retire development rights on those 5,000 lots before the pool of building permits runs dry.

The county has implemented policies in the past that allow dedication of lots for property owners to gain more points in the Rate of Growth Ordinance allocation system. Property owners can aggregate lots for building rights in environmentally sensitive areas.

But those programs haven’t taken near a big enough bite out of the potential problem.

The only way to permanently extinguish building rights is for some governmental agency to buy the land.

The federal government, once an active player in land purchases here, has backed off and they mostly bought ecologically sensitive large tracts where building wasn’t attractive anyway.

The state government, once an active player in land purchases here, didn’t buy a single piece of property last year, and probably won’t buy any this year, and maybe won’t buy any into the foreseeable future.

That leaves the county with a big potential bill.

So staff has been scrambling trying to come up with ways to deflect the issue before the end comes and the problem gets insurmountable.

One of the ideas being floated is to get permission to go out to the voters in three or seven years for a property tax referendum dedicated to purchasing buildable lots before the build out plateau is reached.

Staff planned to pitch that idea to the Administrative Commission Thursday as one of the ways to staunch the flow of money before it begins.

Under the scenarios to be presented yesterday were a .75 mil property tax levy to raise just over $14 million per year, a .5 mil levy to raise just over $9.3 million per year and a .25 mil levy to raise just over $4.6 million per year.

The first might get the county over the hump in the 10-year window, but the second two probably won’t as property values have begun to rise again here and each year they go up again.

At least five other counties in Florida have already implemented similar programs, all but one with either a time length or a revenue cap built in. Staff doesn’t recommend anything on that front.

Any dedicated tax levy would have to be approved by the voters or count against the county’s annual increase of five percent.

If the voters approve of a levy, the BOCC could either appoint an oversight board to prioritize and approve purchases, or do that themselves.

“I think I could support sending such a levy to the voter,” said Commissioner Danny Kolhage. “But I would want it to focus on buildable lots. Those are the ones that will get us in trouble in the future.”

“I have no problem asking the voter for approval of a program like this,” said Commissioner Sylvia Murphy. “It makes sense, but I’m not sure we could get it approved.”

She said she is also concerned that a special levy would eventually begin to drive older home owners from the islands because they could no longer bear the tax burden.

“What I might support more is to use the one-penny infrastructure sales tax after we have finished wastewater and have done roads and bridges to start buying land,” she said. “Using the one-cent tax we just extended wouldn’t eat into the wallets of our taxpayer as much as an extra ad valorem tax.”

The sales tax is expected to raise about $13 million annually for the county, with the first five years being devoted to wastewater expenses, and the next five of a 15-year term dedicated to catching up on a serious backlog of neglected road and bridge projects.

That would leave some $65 million to attack the land purchase issue, not nearly enough with an estimated $248 million in assessed vacant land in the county today.

The Monroe County Land Authority gets about $1.5 million yearly from a state-park subsidy fund and from a half-cent of Tourist Development Council bed tax proceeds, still far short of the estimate needed to retire the remaining lots.

“We’ll have to look at the program and make a decision. I’m always in favor of allowing the voters to decide on taxation issues,” said Murphy.

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