Special taxing district possible for purchase of building rights here

By Steve Estes

This month the Monroe Board of County Commissioners will get their first official look at options to aid in avoiding potentially tens of millions in land takings cases.

Current estimates have Monroe County running out of allowable building allocations in 10 years.

The number of residential units in the Keys are directly tied to the amount of time it takes to evacuate everyone in the face of a major hurricane of Category 3 or above.

The state has mandated that Monroe County must be able to get all of its permanent residents out of the county within 24 hours should it be threatened by a major hurricane.

Last year, county and state staff reworked the hurricane evacuation clearance model, adding new census numbers and changing the parameters under which the model is run.

Based on that new model run, there are 3,750 building allocations left in the Keys before the island chain exceeds the 24-hour mandate.

Monroe County and its municipalities currently receive 357 allocations yearly, with 197 in unincorporated Monroe County and the rest scattered to the rest of the municipalities. That leaves 10 years at the current rate of allocations before the county reaches the build out plateau.

The problem is that there are more than 8,800 vacant parcels of privately owned land in the Keys, leaving potentially more than 5,000 parcels that may be buildable with no allocations.

Staff has estimated that at the current rate of government land purchases, it could take more than 100 years to buy the vacant land. The coffers would probably go empty from takings cases long before that time runs its course.

Florida has been in the land buying business for a while, but that revenue source has been steadily drying up as state revenues declined, and the current regime hasn’t been kind to land purchase programs even as revenue begins an uptick.

The US government has also been a sometime big player in land purchases, but generally goes after large environmentally sensitive tracts where development pressure is low anyway.

That leaves the county with most of the buildable properties under its land purchase umbrella before the build out plateau is reached.

And the BOCC is generally split about the potential severity of the problem.

Mayor George Neugent said he feels as though Monroe County will never be stuck as the sole agency to purchase buildable land when the build out threshold is attained.

Commissioner David Rice has agreed with that assessment, but is still ready to listen to suggestions on how to lessen the potential severity of the problem in the future.

During his first tenure on the county commission, Rice estimated it would take more than $500 million to get the build out bug off the county’s back.

That number has decreased somewhat due to the real estate crash and dropping property assessments, but this year, for the first time in five years, Monroe County property valuations have risen overall.

That is a trend most see continuing, making the $500 million number again plausible.

County staff is expected to suggest some tweaks to the land development codes that give property owners incentives to aggregate buildable lots, taking at least one potential allocation off the market. The current Rate of Growth Ordinance, the guiding document for allocation of building rights, doles out additional ratings points for property owners who donate land to the county that could have potential building rights so they can move up the ranking list more quickly.

But neither of those programs is expected to make much of a dent in the 5,500-plus anticipated deficit of building permits after the 10-year horizon.

“The only way to completely remove a parcel from potential building rights status is for some entity to buy it and retire the building rights,” said County Growth Management Director Christine Hurley.

And to that end county staff intends to float a couple of revenue-producing ideas to the county commission.

The first will be to set aside a percentage of the infrastructure sales tax extension going forward that is dedicated to land purchases.

That idea has already met with some resistance among the commissioners who see that tax money of more use in actually catching up on county infrastructure needs after several lean years.

It’s estimated that the county is $30 million behind the curve on road and bridge maintenance, and the newest capital plan proposal sets aside money for five years from the sales tax to catch up on that backlog.

County officials plan to use about $50 million of that money to complete the Cudjoe Regional wastewater system, now under construction and the last of the mandated wastewater upgrades needed to meet the state mandate.

Probable storm water management needs could eat up several tens of millions more, and there has been talk of dedicating some of that money to canal restoration if outside sources can’t be nailed down between state and federal environmental protection grants.

That starts to dwindle the money supply rapidly. There are also plans for some $57 million in public safety projects and quality of life enhancement to come from that money going forward, further decreasing what might be available for land acquisitions.

The sales tax might be a hard sell for land acquisition with other needs already on the table.

Staff is also expected to suggest an ad valorem tax referendum.

With a quarter mil levy, staff believes the time frame for land acquisitions could be cut by a third. With a half-mil levy, about $9 million per year, the time frame might be cut in half.

With a full mil levy, or abut $18 million per year, Hurley said the county might have a fighting chance to leverage outside money and existing sources to cut the time frame to within 15 years of the anticipated build out.

Voters would have to approve that additional levy. It would be a special taxing district levied against every property in the county. The average homeowner would pay $100 per year in additional taxes per $100,000 valuation.

“We know its going to take a broad approach to the problem to address it properly,” said Hurley.

Most tax referendums are held during November general elections. It’s way too late for this year.

And commissioners haven’t yet chimed in on what they think of even authorizing a referendum for a special taxing district to fund land purchases.

Commissioner Danny Kolhage says it’s a fine line that would need to be walked.

“We know this is an obligation we may have to meet,but we have to be sure we don’t take so much land off the tax rolls that we make the taxes too expensive for the people who live here to make up the difference,” he said.

State lands accrue no taxes to the county other than some token maintenance payments. The federal government makes a payment in lieu of taxes, but nowhere near what the land would bring to the coffers if it were privately held.

The more taxable land that moves to county  hands, the greater the maintenance bill yearly and the fewer private properties actually contributing to the tax base.

“We haven’t studied that issue yet, but we will,” said Hurley.

Possible land acquisition strategies are expected to be on the BOCC agenda for July 17.

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