County seeks ways to buy land

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners Wednesday will start the laborious process of trying to find a way to dodge what could be more than $300 million in potential land takings law suits beginning in 2023.

Monroe County is under state mandate to maintain a hurricane evacuation clearance time of less than 24 hours for permanent residents. The state regulates the number of residential building permits each year to Monroe County based largely on the amount of time it takes to clear the permanent residents in the face of an impending storm.

After more than a year of date-gathering and negotiations, the county and state ran a clearance model last year that determined there are 3,550 residential permits remaining before the county exceeds that 24-hour clearance time mandate.

And after those permits are issued, that leaves unincorporated Monroe County and its municipalities with 7,814 vacant parcels without an allocation left to issue.

Of course, all of those parcels won’t be buildable, says County Growth Management Director Christine Hurley. Some of them will be sensitive species habitat. Some of them will be wetlands. Some of them will not meet size and scope criteria in the particular zoning district.

But there will be enough left that county officials believe they may be facing takings cases that could cost the taxpayer upwards of $100 million after the allocations run dry.

So the issue becomes two-fold for the commissioners.

First, they must find a way to retire building rights on otherwise buildable land before, or shortly after, the allocations run dry.

Second, they must find a way to finance those retirements because much of that land is held by owners who hope to someday build a home in the Florida Keys.

The only sure-fire way to make sure vacant land isn’t able to build on is to purchase the land and retire the building rights.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Hurley says the staff will lay out some possible avenues in that two-prong approach.

Staff plans to ask the commissioners to go on the record asking that the state adequately fund the old Florida Forever program that was established by the state Legislature years ago to purchase sensitive lands for conservation of Florida’s many endangered species and ecologically sensitive areas.

The rules of the program, however, have changed as fiscal theories in Tallahassee have changed. Now, the state wants local governments to put some skin in the game, namely money, before it will open its wallet.

According to Hurley, the commission needs to approve match money of 50 percent to access state purchase funds going forward.

Two critical areas have previously been identified by the state for purchases, but the cut off of acquisition money by an austere Legislature left those projects incomplete.

The amount of money the county would have to come up with to finish just those two projects is about $8.2 million to pay for half.

The county earns about $3 million per year in potential acquisition money through a half-penny bed tax from the Tourist Development Council and state park fees. That would push the county’s known resources to three years just for the two identified areas, and nearly 100 years for the total package.

That doesn’t solve the long-term issue.

County Commissioner George Neugent has said that he’s confident that when push comes to shove, the state and federal wallets will open to aid Monroe County because neither of those two entities wants to wind up involved in such staggering takings cases sums.

Staff has previously suggested using funds form the extended infrastructure sales tax for property acquisitions, but the support for that idea from the BOCC has been lackluster at best with so many actual physical plant infrastructure need currently on the books. Those needs include finishing the Cudjoe Regional wastewater system and catching up on a nearly $30 million backlog in roads and bridge projects.

Staff also plans to ask the BOCC to hire Trust for Public Lands, a non-profit group, to conduct a county-wide public outreach campaign and gauge community support for a possible dedicated revenue source to buy those remaining parcels.

Part of that effort would reportedly be a study to see what the removal of all that land from the county’s tax rolls would do to local property tax rates and whether those rates would be affordable for the average homeowner.

In order to make a serious dent in the funds needed to retire rights on the vacant parcels, staff has earlier suggested that a tax rate of .75 mils or $75 per $100,000 valuation might be necessary to get the land off the books before allocations run dry.

Any such special taxing district would first require Legislative authority, and would then have to be approved by a majority of voters in the county.

It is interest in that referendum staff hopes to get a feel for with the outreach project.

Hurley says that a dedicated revenue source wold allow the county to become more aggressive in buying land that may never get a building allocation.

There would still be roadblocks, however, even if the county manages to get approval for a self-taxing district from the voters.

Conservation land purchases don’t allow for eminent domain proceedings. All purchases must be from willing sellers. The county has had to purchase large chunks of land on Big Pine Key in the last 10 years to meet mitigation needs under the Habitat Conservation Plan. Finding willing sellers to reach the total needed hasn’t always been easy and the county still has needs in that area before all the limited human development allowed on Big Pine under the HCP can be completed.

According to a recent staff report, the remaining residential allocations under the HCP on Big Pine won’t be able to be awarded due to mitigation needs.

Mayor Sylvia Murphy has said in the past that she is not in favor of using infrastructure sales tax money for land acquisitions. She is joined in that thought by Neugent, although both have said that a referendum on self taxation by the voters would be in the reaqlm of possibility.

Commissioners Heather Carruthers and Danny Kolhage have said that they could support putting such a property-tax referendum on the ballot.

Commissioner David Rice has most often echoed the sentiments of Neugent in that he believes when the courts start getting involved, the state will either change the game or pony up some money for the effort.

“The commission is thinking long term with these requests, but the process must start in the short term,” said Hurley. “Ten years seems like a long time. When you’re contemplating something of this magnitude, 10 years isn’t long.”

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