BOCC: Yes to ROGO extension, belief high permits won’t be stopped

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners has agreed that  the remaining Rate of Growth Ordinance building allocations should be spread out over the next 20 years instead of the 10 years now planned.

The issue arises because last year the county and state collaborated on a new hurricane evacuation clearance time model run that showed Monroe County just barely under the state mandate of 24 hours to get all the permanent residents out of the county in the face of a major hurricane that targets the island chain.

Using the little remaining time, state officials allocated 3,550 more residential building permits to the island chain before it deemed county officials could no longer clear permanent residents in less than 24 hours. Of that total, 1,970 permits will go to areas in unincorporated Monroe County with the remainder divvied out to the various municipalities.

Over the anticipated 10 years, the county would have received 197 allocations per year. Under the plan initially proposed Wednesday, those yearly allocations would lower in phases over the next 20 years.

That, says planning officials, delays the potential build-out of the Keys by an extra 10 years and gives everyone time to come up with a way not to face a potential of some $100 million in takings cases once the permits run dry.

“This gives us time to work on some land acquisition strategies so that we can purchase privately owned properties and retire the development rights,” said County Growth Management Director Christine Hurley.

There are about 11,000 parcels in the Keys that could have potential building rights associated with them. After the theoretical end of the state’s building allocations, about 7,500 potentially buildable parcels would remain.

And that could cost some governmental entity a load of money when those property owners who can’t get permits sue for stripping their land of economic viability.

The state continues to allocate residential building rights in the Keys because the most recent evacuation clearance model showed some time left under the 24 hour mandate. That was accomplished by removing tourists from the equation because officials say they will be ordered out 48 hours in advance of a storm, and by removing he majority of mobile home dwellers in the Keys because they will also be ordered out 48 hours in advance and won’t be in the mix with the remaining residents who remain to button up homes and businesses.

Evacuation clearance is an issue in the Keys because there is only one road out—US 1.

Economics, more than any other factor, drive the hurricane evacuation clearance issue and decisions on future building levels in the Keys as no government wants to face the daunting possibility of paying property owners for land they bought hoping to build on some day and may not be able to later.

Environmentally, the Keys upland habitat is already beyond its ability to sustain itself in the face of more human development, according to the 2006 Keys Carrying Capacity study, a study that has been shelved and spoken little of in the last eight years.

And even as county officials grapple with ways to keep the supply of permits flowing into the Keys to stave off potential legal losses in the $100 million range, many in county government don’t believe the day will ever come when permits actually cease.

“I just don’t buy into the scenario that the state will refuse permits when we’ve exhausted this supply,” said County Commissioner George Neugent. “They don’t want to be on the front line of millions of dollars in takings cases, just like we don’t want to be on the front lines of that.”

In fact, said Neugent, there have already been discussions in Tallahassee about changing the way hurricane evacuation clearance is calculated, or the amount of time allowed, to keep the permit supply flowing and the legal hounds at bay.

“There has been discussion of raising the clearance time from 24 hours to 30 hours because storm forecasts are getting more precise, and that would keep permits flowing,” said Neugent.

Based on current calculations, an increase of six hours would cover almost every potentially buildable parcel that might want an allocation in the coming years.

“But we only hope that any changes are made with public safety in mind,” said Commissioner Danny Kolhage who has been leading the charge to find creative ways to buy potentially buildable land before the permit supply is exhausted.

Opponents of continued growth in the Keys, who primarily claim that unchecked development will eventually destroy the unique ecology of the Keys, claim that the current evacuation clearance time is already a myth. They claim that a major storm that forms rapidly and moves quickly wouldn’t give emergency personnel enough time to clear the county of people before it racked the Keys, with the potential for an unacceptable human death toll as evacuees are trapped on the highway or chose to ride out the storm because the only highway out is hopelessly clogged.

Neugent said there is also talk of lifting the county’s designation as an area of critical state concern after the completion of the wastewater upgrades currently underway. With the lifting of that designation the 24-hour clearance mandate may also go away.

Even with the clearance time in place, Neugent says that development can still be allowed by a state government that currently is almost exclusively pro-business and will hand over the keys to the Keys to keep the tourism economic engine humming at full steam.

“The rationale I’ve heard is that since tourists don’t count in the evacuation clearance model, we can continue to build hotels to accommodate even more tourists and not harm the clearance time,” said Neugent.

Mayor Sylvia Murphy, who was the commission liaison during the evacuation model run last year, said that she thinks Neugent is probably right in his assessment.

“If we get to 24 hours, someone will say that second cars don’t count because people will car pool in one car, or that blue-eyed people don’t evacuate and they’ll come off the total,” said Murphy. “Public safety doesn’t enter the conversation against corporate dollars.”

Commissioners are also concerned that the bill to purchase potentially buildable parcels in the Keys could prove to be more than the local taxpayer can foot.

In order to have enough dedicated funding to purchase what county staff feels are the extra lots, Monroe taxpayers need to find a way to come up with about $230 million. Right now, state park entrance fees and a half penny of the tourist bed tax are dedicated yearly for land acquisition, or about $3 million. Using just that revenue, the county might be able to buy enough land to limit takings cases in the future in some 80 years.

The idea of a dedicated property tax has been floated, but that would have to be about .75 mils, or $75 per $100,000 of home valuation yearly to realize enough money to meet the, right now, 2023 build-out plateau.

That tax levy could only be approved by the voters and no one in county government is sure that the measure would stand a chance at the ballot box.

Commissioner David Rice suggested that staff look into changing the market rate to affordable unit ROGO allocations.

No serious affordable housing projects have gotten off the ground since the housing bubble burst in 2007 and local property prices began a precipitous drop that put the lower end homes below the price of a former affordable unit anyway.

“Do we continue to stack up affordable allocations that no one is using and prevent more market rate units at the risk of possible legal action later?” asked Rice.

County staff is expected to come back to the BOCC in the next couple of months will specific suggestions for land acquisition and incorporate the extended allocation window approved by the commission Wednesday into the update of the county’s comprehensive plan that should be completed early next year.

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