Big Pine canals may qualify for that dubious distinction
Once county officials settle on what five canals they plan to use $5 million on for test projects in what is estimated to be a $300 million overall project, most of the test canals will probably be from Big Pine Key.
“At least four of the five worst canals in terms of water quality are all on Big Pine Key,” said County Mayor George Neugent, whose District Two encompasses Big Pine.
County consultants recently completed the initial fact-finding phase of the canal restoration project by visiting each of the island chain’s 502 canal systems.
The ultimate goal was to get down to the five worst canals that fit inside the Board of County Commissioner’s $5 million initial budget.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service last week notified the Federal Emergency Management Agency that it would be reopening required agency consultation on the Biological Opinion that currently guides Monroe County development in potential endangered species habitat.
And by default, that new consultation will also require reopening the Habitat Conservation Plan for Big Pine and No Name Keys.
The reason for the new negotiation is that USFWS recently listed the Miami Blue butterfly as endangered. That rare butterfly is thought to be present in Monroe County and the service didn’t account for the species when it issued the original opinion in 2010.
FWS also plans to list two other butterflies that occur on Big Pine Key and possibly elsewhere in the Keys, and the imminent listing of those species will result in some changes in development restrictions in areas of habitat for the two butterflies.
Big Pine is already embroiled in a battle over the butterflies as USFWS and the Mosquito Control District try to work out a permit to allow mosquito spraying on the largest island in the Lower Keys, which also happens to be home to a majority of the 32 endangered species that call the Keys home.
During Wednesday’s discussion of canal restoration projects by the Monroe Board of County Commissioners, the members seemed to get a little too hung up on ownership of the canals in the Florida Keys.
Like every other geographic feature in the Keys, canal ownership is a mish-mash of public and private, often overlapping on the same street, sometimes meeting in the middle of the canal.
But we believe the argument is simple.
The residential canals of the Florida Keys all, repeat all, feed the near shore waters and thus have an effect on our water clarity and quality.
The problems with water quality in our residential canals are many and long-standing.
Monroe County’s Truth in Millage Notices (TRIM) were mailed Friday and began appearing in various mailboxes late Monday or later in the week.
The TRIM notices are estimated tax bills for the coming year that outline the valuation of the property and what the various taxing authorities are charging for services in the coming year.
And for some, those notices may have carried a little bit of shocking news.
2012 sets record for deer deaths on roads
More deer were killed by vehicle collisions last year than at any time in the history of the National Key Deer Refuge.
According to Monroe County’s annual report to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 150 deer died due to vehicle strikes. Overall, 197 deer died in 2012, another record mortality count.
Under the terms of the Incidental Take Permit between Monroe County and the USFWS, if the ratio of deer killed by human causes to the number of deer counted by refuge personnel in regular road sightings tops 1.5, the refuge has options that include declaring a human development moratorium on Big Pine and No Name Keys until a method is devised to bring the ratio back down. The 2012 ratio was 2.73.
The majority of road kills occur at the end of the deer fences on US 1 at the curve in front of St. Peter Church and in front of the area where CVS and Walgreens are.
Another hot spot is the wooded area across from Strike Zone charters. The area on interior Big Pine with the worst deer kill record is Watson Blvd.
According to Refuge Manager Nancy Finley, the majority of kills are young bucks.
“That tells us that the young bucks are moving into new areas looking for a territory to call their own,” said Finley.
Finley said that the refuge isn’t really interested in getting into the legal issues surrounding a human development moratorium, “We would rather fix the problem.”
In a recent two-day span, three deer were killed by vehicle strikes.
The refuge has asked Monroe County to come up with some alternatives to what’s in place right now to protect the deer from vehicles. The majority of the remaining Key Deer herd is located on Big Pine and No Name Keys. There are smaller herds on Sugarloaf and Cudjoe Keys as a result of a translocation project several years ago, and recently deer have been spotted more often on the Torches and Ramrod than in years past.
That, says Monroe County Environmental Resources Coordinator Mike Roberts, actually shows that the size of the deer herd is increasing and the spike in vehicle collisions could be a result of that.
In published documents, the refuge states there are 750 deer in the core herds on Big Pine and No Name. Road counts seem to support a herd size that hasn’t changed significantly in the last eight to 10 years, but Roberts questions the methodology being used to count the herd.
“It’s obvious to us (county) that the census methodology needs to be refined so we get a better handle on the true number of deer,” said Roberts.
While the refuge hasn’t backed off its public assertion that the herd numbers around 750, herd managers do admit that the population of the endangered species is at or above carrying capacity for the islands.
That can happen for a couple of different reasons, says Finley.
“The deer have found an artificial food source to replace their normal forage that is artificially raising the carrying capacity of the islands,” she said.
The first of those is deer being fed by humans, and usually being fed food that doesn’t digest well for a deer.
“What humans consider treats for a deer isn’t usually on their natural diet,” said Finley. “But they’ll eat the food anyway.”
She also said that the deer are foraging more in trash cans than they have in the past.
“We still have some of the continuing issues with humans feeding the deer that we’ve had for years. Feeding deer may seem like the compassionate thing to do, but it only manifests in other issues,” said Finley.
She agreed that one of those issues could be increased road kills.
“The deer learn that humans are a good source of free handouts so they seek out humans, at home or in cars, and they equate that to free food. They stay close to the road waiting for a handout from a passing car and they get hit,” said Finley.
She also said that the refuge must work in cooperation with the county to get people to put up more effective trash can corrals so the deer can’t tip over a can and feast on the contents.
“We need to get the feeding issues resolved. This might be a case where we have to make examples of some folks who feed deer so we can embark on a ‘tough love’ scenario. We need to make the deer skittish around humans or seek easy food elsewhere,” said Finley.
Roberts said that the deer strike numbers actually have little correlation to human development over the last decade.
“Development has been flat and traffic counts to and through Big Pine have been flat, yet the deer kill numbers continue to rise,” said Roberts. “The data doesn’t bear out the premise that humans are totally responsible.”
The Monroe County Planning Commission last week gave its blessing to changes in the county’s Coastal Barrier Resource System overlay district that has been in the works for months.
The Board of County Commissioners decided during the latest electrification fight on No Name Key to have the CBRS overlay studied by a professional consultant. And as expected, that consultant said that sensitive environmental lands are just as well protected by the county’s Tier System of land designation as by the CBRS district.
With current estimates declaring that Monroe County will run out of the ability to issue new residential building allocations sometime in 2023, county leadership has turned its attentions toward the ramifications of that.
First, county commissioners are concerned that by not being able to issue new residential building allocations, the county could be on the hook for more than $200 million in potential land takings cases.
Monroe County is under state mandate to limit residential growth so that officials can ensure that all permanent residents can clear the county in less than 24 hours in the face of an impending major hurricane targeting the island chain.
The county has reached that plateau twice in the last 10 years. The first time officials estimated that permanent residents could no longer clear out of the county within the 24-hour limit, the state agreed to allow for a phased evacuation policy.
Under that policy, visitors were ordered out 48 hours in advance of the landfall of gale-force winds. Mobile home dwellers were ordered out 36 hours in advance and people who live here full time, or simply owned a single-family home, were ordered out 30 hours in advance.
Just a few years later, it was determined that the 24-hour threshold had been exceeded again, so state and county staffers devised a new model that takes into account the owners of site-built homes that won’t be around because they’re the snowbirds, the forcing of mobile home dwellers out with the tourists, and factors in the anticipated number of folks who are here that will actually pay attention to a mandatory evacuation call.
Using those numbers, county officials were left with about 30 minutes of clearance time to spare, which translated to 3,550 new residential permits over the next 10 years.
According to county staff, there are 8,200 potentially buildable parcels in unincorporated Monroe County. With just 1,970 allocations in that same jurisdiction over the next 10 years, the county commission faces abut 6,200 parcels that won’t be able to even apply for building allocations.
So last month the commission set to work sorting through potential answers to what could be a $250 million question at today’s appraised value.
Sometime before the end of this year, Monroe County planners will be proposing a change to the county’s lower level enclosure inspection programs.
Two years ago, the Florida Legislature closed the door on one lower level inspection program by outlawing the county’s inspection on permit program. Under that program, any home where county staff identified a possible illegal enclosure below base flood elevation was subject to an inspection of that enclosure before the permit would be granted.
And this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency finally agreed to the end of the controversial insurance renewal inspection program.
Lobster season opened with the bang most hoped it would Tuesday, with catches about four times the size as those opening day last year.
About seven years ago, County Mayor George Neugent, who was then a county commissioner without the honorary title, asked county staff if they had at all researched what mitigation might be required to build the planned for, and now coming soon, central wastewater system collection lines around Big Pine Key.
That question still has yet to be answered.
Mitigation, generally in the form of land purchases, is required for nearly all new development of any kind on Big Pine and No Name Key that will disturb habitat crucial to the many endangered species that call the islands home, or will leave structures of any kind in that same habitat or within a buffer zone for the Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit.
County staff tracks those mitigation needs through permit applications. But the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority is exempt from county permitting requirements by virtue of state statute.
That, claims county planning staff, means that before pipes can go in the ground on Big Pine Key FKAA will have to talk to the US Fish and Wildlife Service about mitigation needs.
FKAA will probably have to expand that conversation to include the rest of the Lower Keys islands included in the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System as those areas are covered by a county/USFWS and Federal Emergency Management Agency agreement also dealing with the protection of endangered species and habitat for those species.
Some of the concerns will arise due to the maximum allowable square footage for recreational and community/public facilities on Big Pine and No Name. County staff claims that the sewer lines will fall under the public facilities definition of the Habitat Conservation Plan. Underthat category, no more than 24,000 square feet is allowed, and although the rebuilt Big Pine Fire Station and newly built Big Pine Community Park, as well as other smaller projects have been deducted from that total, officials say that it is highly unlikely lift stations and pumping stations would exceed that cap.