The Monroe Board of County Commissioners will hold a special meeting Tuesday, Feb. 26 to try and get some clarity on where the commission wants to go with issues surrounding the issuance of building permits when a project is located in or goes through an area designated as a federal Coastal Barrier Resource System.
The CBRS was established by the federal government in the 1980s in order to help protect environmentally sensitive coastal areas that serve as a buffer from storm and wind damage for more inland areas. The expenditure of federal dollars to subsidize development is prohibited in those areas, meaning no federal grants can be expended for development, nor can properties located there be issued federally subsidized flood insurance.
After years of infighting among residents of No Name Key, an island partially contained in a CBRS unit, and a court ruling that declared residents there had no statutory or Constitutional right to commercial power, the county established a CBRS overlay district that purports to discourage the extension of commercial utilities to or through such areas and in a land development regulation actually prohibits such.
Under that prohibition, the county is currently refusing to issue building permits for a few dozen homes in Key Largo where the wastewater treatment district wants to install lines through a CBRS, and to homes on No Name Key to hook into a commercial power gird paid for by 22 residents of the 43 homes there and installed by Keys Energy Services.
The issue of sewer hook ups in Key Largo is a relatively new one, but the fight over commercial power on No Name Key has been an on-again, off-again issue for nearly three decades.
But this is the first time that fight has resulted in actual utility poles carrying commercial power on the island.
But those poles power nothing at the moment because of the county’s prohibition on issuing building permits.
In an effort to stop the parking of commercial trucks and trailers along the public rights-of-way, the Monroe Board of County Commissioners last month approved a new parking ordinance.
Two court challenges to the awarding of bids to build the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater inner and outer islands collection systems may have placed $50 million state money in jeopardy to help finance that project.
In December, the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority awarded bids for the long-stalled project projected to serve some 8,800 units between Lower Sugarloaf and Big Pine Keys.
The Third District Court of Appeals Wednesday upheld Circuit Court Judge David Audlin’s ruling that it is indeed the state Public Service Commission that has jurisdiction in deciding issues surrounding the possible electrification of No Name Key.
Monroe County had filed a declaratory action with Audlin seeking to have the court verify what the responsibilities and authorities are of the county with regard to electrification of the remote island off the northeast shore of Big Pine Key.
The county was seeking clarification on whether it had to allow use of conservation lands it owned for utility easements to allow the power lines. It also wanted the court to determine if all of the sides of the road the utility was using were indeed established rights-of-way where county officials are barred from local control by state statute.
Another question the county asked is whether the county’s land use codes, which prohibit the extension of commercial utilities to or through an area designated as a Coastal Barrier Resource System. Parts of No Name Key are in such a designation, and the power grid runs through such an area in all cases.
Before any court rulings were finalized, Keys Energy signed a line extension agreement with 22 property owners to run a power grid. And despite not having the county’s permission to use conservation lands for easements, the utility strung the poles and lines.
For that last act, the county has filed a civil trespass case against KEYS in Audlin’s court.
With the release this week of the Integrated Pest Management Plan by the National Wildlife Refuges of the Florida Keys, the way is clear for Key Deer Refuge staff to begin its program of trapping free-roaming cats on federal lands.
Claim emotional distress over electrification issue
Two No Name Key families are asking the courts to award them $10 million for emotional trauma brought about by Monroe County’s refusal to issue building permits to allow them to hook into energized energy wires running just yards from their homes.
The suit is the latest in a lengthy litany of lawsuits filed over the potential electrification of the remote island off the northeast shore of Big Pine Key.
It is now running concurrently with at least four other legal battles in three separate venues dealing with the electrification of No Name Key.
There has never been commercial power to No Name Key. The 43 homes on the island, 22 of which have signed on for commercial power through Keys Energy Services, are powered by solar arrays, generators, or a combination of the two.
James and Ruth Newton and Robert and Julianne Reynolds filed the suit last Thursday in the circuit court of Judge David Audlin who already has two No Name electrification cases on his docket.
Circuit Court Judge David Audlin is expected to hear more legal arguments Friday morning in the cases surrounding the electrification of No Name Key.
Audlin has already ruled on one No Name Key case, the original declaratory action filed by the county against Keys Energy Services.
Two considered on Big Pine Key
Next month, the Monroe Board of County Commissioners will hear about plans to begin the process of building scenic overlooks along the Overseas Heritage Trail.
And two of the areas where overlooks are being contemplated are on Big Pine Key.
The first is at the sight of the old swimming hole on the island’s west end.
Before about 10 years ago, the area was a popular meeting place for locals as an impromptu swimming hole and picnic area. It also long served as a dinghy landing for the liveaboard boaters moored in North Pine Channel, as well as a shelter from storms for those same boaters’ vessels.
Then came the stranding of a pod of pilot whales off the shores of Big Pine Key and the use of the old swimming hole as a rehabilitation site for those whales. The depth of the water, easy access from the highway, ample parking and controlled access points by land and water made the site ideal for the rehabilitation effort.
The land was also owned by a state agency, so permission wasn’t an issue. The rehabilitation effort spanned nearly a year and after the whales were released at sea, the state Department of Environmental Protection was supposed to pay to have the waters cleaned of the massive amounts of whale feces dumped during the rehab effort. But that never happened and instead, DEP closed the area to vehicular traffic.
At one point, the county had management authority for the area, then maintenance was turned over to the National Key Deer Refuge, which then turned over maintenance to DEP with the advent of the first miles of Heritage Trail on Big Pine Key.
And for the time since the whale stranding event, the area has, for the most part, been closed for public use.
County commissioners Wednesday decided that they want a more extensive review of what could happen if they were to change wording in the county’s land use comprehensive plan that currently prohibits the extension of public utilities into areas designated by the federal government as Coastal Barrier Resource Areas.
That discussion was sparked last month after the commission, again, discussed an ongoing legal battle with Keys Energy Services and 22 residents of No Name Key over the development of commercial power to the island.
The Monroe Board of County Commissioners Wednesday decided to add more than 150 users to the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System that previously were in areas where central sewers wasn’t slated to go.
The largest of those additions was the Long Beach Road area of Big Pine Key where officials estimate 44 properties would be added to the Cudjoe Regional system at a cost of about $15,000 per. But by adding that area to the system, officials also gain the Big Pine Fishing Lodge, which county engineer Kevin Wilson estimates is about 30 equivalent dwelling units.
“By adding the fishing lodge, that brings the cost per EDU way down and makes that portion of the project quite low,” said Wilson.
Adding the areas may force further actions by the BOCC such as the need to change the adopted wastewater master plan to include those areas in the central system.
Wilson has already learned that the state Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees land use issues in the Florida Keys Area of Critical State Concern, will not object to adding additional units.
But what the move will also force is a policy discussion in the very near future about how to handle properties included in the expanded areas that have for more than a decade been told they won’t be part of the central system and using that knowledge, have already installed systems that meet minimum state standards, sometimes at a cost of up to $25,000.
Wilson said there is no concrete plan in place to deal with those folks as yet, but did have some suggestions.