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Marathon is about to run out of building permits. Their solution? Borrow some

The city of Marathon building at 9805 Overseas Highway on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.
Julia Cooper
The city of Marathon building at 9805 Overseas Highway on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

A couple weeks after Marathon's city manager blindsided Keys officials with his request for thousands of building permits, council members have decided to request new allocations from the county government.

The Marathon City Council addressed their permit allocation predicament to the public for the first time at a packed monthly workshop this week. The city is expected to run out of building permits they can issue to private landowners by July, according to a city memo.

Officials on all levels of local government in the Keys were already grappling with development challenges since a Florida report suggested that 7,954 vacant lots remaining across the archipelago could be developed over — which many fear would harm the environment and hinder hurricane evacuation efforts, potentially endangering residents.

The situation hit close to home for the city when it emerged earlier this month that Marathon city manager George Garrett had requested state legislators allow all those vacant lots to receive permit allocations. He also asked to raise the evacuation time mandate from 24 to 31 hours. The request, first reported by The Key West Citizen, could open the door for a development boom in the Keys if granted.

READ MORE: 'More than alarming': New report spurs worries over public safety, the environment in the Keys

At the workshop on Monday, Marathon residents, nonprofit leaders, developers and county government officials expressed concern over the impending development ruling from the state.

Ann Olsen, president of resident safety and quality of life nonprofit Keys Last Stand, said she hopes Keys government officials find the "least harmful way to add a number of [building permits] throughout the county."

"We hope that the pressure to develop doesn't dictate public safety policies," Olsen, a Summerland Key resident, added at the meeting.

“There’s no doubt that this is a serious issue and it’s been a serious issue for many many years,” said Councilmember Luis Gonzalez. “Now the seriousness is before us.”

He proposed asking to borrow up to 50 permit allocations from the county government, which has stretched their allocations to last another two years.

Development across the Florida Keys

BPAS, as it’s referred to in Marathon, is the Building Permit Allocation system, which is based on public safety standards when it comes to evacuation for hurricanes.

The Florida Keys has a famously strict process for regulating building development. It is considered an ‘Area of Critical State Concern’ which is overseen by the state’s land planning agency FloridaCommerce — the Florida Department of Commerce.

Such areas are considered to have natural resources with major statewide significance. Development is strictly regulated based on how many more buildings can be supported while still maintaining the ability to evacuate all permanent residents of the Keys in a 24-hour time period in the case of a hurricane.

A FloridaCommerce report on hurricane evacuation released last month modeled the possibility of developing all 7,954 vacant lots remaining across the archipelago. The possibility is welcome by some who are concerned over potential court cases from landowners, but raised alarm bells with many residents and environmentalists.

But the state legislature, then the governor and his cabinet, have the final say over how many more building permits to allow local municipalities to allocate.

Agreement to request permits

While the state legislature is currently in session, the deadline to file new bill proposals has passed so officials say it’s unlikely that the issue will be taken up this year. In the meantime, local leaders are hoping to save themselves from running out of permits.

"The immediate issue for the city of Marathon was we run out now within six months,” said Garrett, the city manager.

Although the city is close to reaching its allocation, the county has enough permits to last until 2026 and county administrator Roman Gastesi told council members that Monroe County is open to loaning permits to the city.

The council members agreed to the proposal to request 50 permits.

“Tonight’s just the first of many many discussions that we need to have,” said Marathon Mayor Robyn Still.

Gastesi suggested that going forward, Marathon and other local Keys governments should petition the state to release more permit allocations.

"We need some," he said.

But he warned they shouldn't ask for all possible permit allocations.

“I don’t think 7,954 qualify as buildable,” he said. “And that’s why we kind of wanted to just slow down a little bit and see how many of those are. Is it a thousand that aren’t buildable that are 2 feet underwater?"

"We don’t know, we’re doing that evaluation,” he added.

Julia Cooper reports on all things Florida Keys and South Dade for WLRN.
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