Commercial land use may change soon

By Steve Estes

Changes are coming in the way Monroe County handles commercial growth.

Under the current system of Non-Residential Rate of Growth, for every new residential unit that is built, 239 square feet of additional commercial square footage is allowed.

For the last decade, even during the building boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, all of the allotted footage hasn’t been given out, resulting in an untapped bank of commercial footage of nearly 390,000 square feet.

That number is for the Upper and Lower Keys subareas, and does not include Big Pine and No Name Keys where available commercial footage is calculated by the same formula, but controlled by the Habitat Conservation Plan, an agreement between the county and state with the US Fish and Wildlife Service that allows for minimal human development in exchange for mitigation in purchased lands at a rate of three-to-one.

At first blush, planners proposed allowing applicants to tap the full amount of the bank, but members of the county planning commission and the Board of County Commissioners, concerned that the amount of available footage could lead to further big-box store development and unfairly change the landscape of the small-business economic model of the Keys, set limits on the numbers.

In a newer proposal, existing businesses, or start-up small businesses would be able to tap the existing bank for up to 1,000 square feet for expansion of an existing facility or construction of a new one without going through the standard competitive cycle.

The proposal also suggests that commercial footage be doled out more often and that if no one else applies, an applicant be allowed to tap the maximum bank. But that bank would be split somewhat evenly between the Upper and Lower Keys, minimizing the threat of large corporate giants scooping up all of the available footage for one mega-center, perhaps like the one proposed for Rockland Key.

Both the county planning commission and Board of County Commissioners have decided that letting the total square footage go in any one shot isn’t the way they want to go, so they have decided to set limits on any one-time award.

Commercial square footage is also controlled by a 10,000 foot limit for any one building without a variance or conditional use approval in most areas.

For the Big Pine commercial area, just over 4,000 square feet of commercial space is available today, but there is more than 30,000 that can be made available if a big-ticket project like Publix were to make another attempt at locating on the island.

The larger amount could be had by borrowing forward against future allocations.

Commercial growth on Big Pine is also controlled by the existing city center overlay district, which is the only place where commercial space can be transferred. That area is a circle within 1,000 feet in any direction from the traffic light.

Planners know that some of the parameters of commercial growth in the Big Pine area will probably have to change soon.

Over the 20-year life of the HCP, Big Pine was allowed 47,800 square feet of additional commercial growth, based on the 239 per residential unit, which are capped at 200.

But the formula was set to also include some specific projects like the new park, the new fire station, the widening of US 1 and the intersection improvements on Key Deer Blvd.

But those projects didn’t eat nearly as much mitigation as had been planned, leaving a significant amount of spoken-for mitigation no longer spoken for.

“We are going to have to go back in sometime soon and reopen the HCP to transfer that unused mitigation to a useful category, although it won’t be residential,” said Growth Management Director Christine Hurley.

Thus far that has not been requested by the BOCC, and when it happens it could likely be a multi-year process.

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