Don’t change rules at game’s end

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners Wednesday spent a great deal of time discussing how much of a problem vacant land might become in the next 20 years.

Vacant land, that is, which is privately owned in the Florida Keys.

And why would vacant land constitute a problem?

Glad you asked.

Monroe County currently has finite residential growth bounded by how long it takes to clear permanent residents from the county in the face of an onrushing major hurricane that targets the Keys.

The state says if we can’t get folks out of here in 24 hours or less, we can’t build any more homes. When the calculations for that were done last year, we found out that we had 3,550 residential building allocations left before we can no longer guarantee that everybody has a chance to get out of here before Hurricane Whatever slams into us.

Vacant land becomes a problem for us because there are some folks who bought land here cheap years ago with the thought to build a retirement home in their later years. Because that time may not come before we run out of residential permits, those folks will probably sue the county for taking their land without just cause.

And it is the potential cost of those lawsuits that makes vacant land the issue it has become.

The early estimate is that it will take abut $300 million to prevent all, or most, of those potential takings cases.

We can’t raise that kind of money locally. The reason we have to raise that kind of money is because the only sure way to make sure that property doesn’t qualify for a building allocation at some future date is for a governmental agency to buy the land and retire the development rights.

We know that early estimate will come down as more research is done. There is a sizable amount of that vacant land that is going to prove to be unbuildable because it’s under water already, or will be in the next 10 or 15 years with sea level rise. It will be unbuildable because it’s home to the only patch of habitat left in the world for some endangered species. It will be unbuildable because there isn’t now, nor has there ever been, nor will there ever be, basic public infrastructure available to the land.

Some of the land has already passed through an estate and nobody really wanted it anyway because it was someone else’s dream, and we’ll get that cheap.

So looking at more than $300 million now seems daunting, but realistically we will look at a far smaller number in the coming months.

Smaller, but not necessarily within reach.

What no one is saying is that transient units are no longer counted in the hurricane evacuation clearance time because the policy says they will be ordered out 24 hours before the permanent residents.

So rest assured, there will still be building after the residential permits run dry, it will just be building that isn’t single-family residential.

But again, no one says that. And right now we have a moratorium on new transient units.

The BOCC has decided that the first step is to solicit monetary help from the state and federal governments who hold so much sway over growth here in Monroe County. It’s a safe bet neither of those two behemoths want to potentially be dragged into land takings cases that could total tens of millions of dollars. Our guess is that those two will pony up some bucks, probably at the last minute, to help us buy our way out of the problem they caused.

It still won’t be enough.

The county can come up with $20 million or $30 million in the next 10 years without really changing anything, still leaving us far short.

So the need to find a dedicated funding stream to help us buy our way out of a problem with vacant land is still pressing.

The suggestions have included adding a penny to the tourist bed tax. That has been rejected. There’s not enough money there to do any good.

It was also suggested to use another penny in sales tax. That may not fly with the voters.

There was also a suggestion to go to voters with a special property tax to purchase property. More than likely that also will not fly, though it might be the fairest way to spread the potential pain.

Our greatest fear in this issue is that once the permits run out in 10 years, the powers that be will find a way to change the evacuation rules again to permit even more building without a major upgrade of our road…our only road in and out.

We already have a study that says our terrestrial habitat is at build out and can’t support significantly more building anyway.

But that’s never made a difference.

And probably won’t again. Although it should.

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