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Is There A Limit To Development? Keys Face Prospect Of Buildout

Nancy Klingener
The number of new homes allowed in the Florida Keys is constrained, not just by zoning rules and limited land, but by hurricane evacuation requirements.

The Florida Keys could be facing a deadline that's unprecedented in South Florida. Four years from now, there might not be any more homes that can be built in the Keys.

The state has a rule that the island chain has to be able to get everyone out 24 hours before a hurricane hits. And there’s just one road out. So there’s a limit to how many people are allowed to live in the Keys.

That means people who live in the Keys — and especially the people who would like to build there in the future — are trying to figure out what to do.

Gale Macke recently flew down from Atlanta just to attend a Monroe County commission workshop.

"Specifically for this meeting," she said. "I'm concerned about the property I bought about a year and a half ago."

The land is in Venture Out, a community on Cudjoe Key. Macke said she hopes to build a home there in five years, when she retires.

She said it's been a longtime dream to return to South Florida, where she grew up.

"And our family, multiple times a year, came down to the Keys," she said. "So I feel like it's just coming home."

Macke's worried about whether she’ll have a home to come to, especially if she's trying to build five years from now.

The workshop she came down to attend was to look at the county's options if it does run out of building permits. After the last census in 2010, the state ran a computer model to see how many more homes could be built, and still get everybody out 24 hours before a hurricane.

The model showed the Keys could handle about 3,500 new homes over a 10-year period.

"But for the first time ever, if they gave that amount, we would be at the 24-hour limit," said Christine Hurley, the assistant county administrator who oversees growth management.

"In previous hurricane models, we never reached that limit," Hurley said.

So on paper, at least for now, the Keys would reach buildout in 2023. No more new houses or apartments.

But no one expects that one day, four years from now, all building stops. That's what the county workshop was about: figuring out what happens next.

One step the County Commission already said they want to take is giving out building permits more slowly. That would buy a couple more years.

Not just hurricane evacuation

And while hurricane evacuation is the most immediate reason for these limits, Hurley says there are others.

Like federally endangered species. And environmental protection.

The Keys are home to a couple dozen species listed as endangered. Some of them only live in the Keys, like the Key deer, the Key Largo wood rat and the Schaus swallowtail butterfly.

And for a lot of people in the Keys, the backyard is water. They're here so they can fish, kayak, or paddleboard any time they want.

"And the more development you push and the more concrete you have, the more stormwater runoff you have, and the nearshore waters can be jeopardized," Hurley said.

After the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane destroyed the Overseas Railroad, the Overseas Highway took its place. Roadbeds were laid over the old railroad bridges — but they were pretty narrow and scary to drive on.

In the 1980s, the state built new, wider bridges. At the same time, the pipeline that brings freshwater to the Keys was replaced. The new pipeline at a much larger capacity.

So tourism and development really took off in the '80s. Joyce Newman has been watching it happen from her home on Big Pine Key — and fighting to preserve the environment and character of the islands.

Keeping the Keys low-key

"Along the years we've made small decisions and big decisions," Newman said. "And one of those big decisions, I think, has been to limit our height of the buildings to pretty much what tree height is prior to Irma, let's say."

That's helped preserve the small-town, low-key quality of the Keys.

"People made a conscious decision. No, we don't want to look like 23-story Miami Beach or Fort Myers or wherever," she said.

Now the Keys are looking at decisions that could have an even bigger impact than the height of the buildings.

"We are on a string of islands, surrounded by water. Apparently, the water is rising at an inexorable rate," Newman said. "We have to face the fact that we are dealing with limits."

Those limits could be a moving target. Next year, there’s another census. How many people live here will be the basis for another computer model for hurricane evacuation. And THAT could change the number of new homes allowed in the Keys.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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