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Forget Hurricanes and Sea Rise. This Bill Could Lead to a Building Boom in the Keys

Al Diaz
Worries about evacuations from the Keys as a hurricane approaches were a key reason the state acted to restrict development in the Keys in 1972. Now, a provision that kicks in in 2023 has prompted legislation preparing for expected lawsuits.

The Florida Keys has been battered by hurricanes, flooded by sea level rise and is gentrifying quickly. But one state lawmaker from Naples wants to add thousands more homes to the island chain, a place many local leaders believe is already built to capacity.

An amendment slipped into a house bill this week seeks to extend the hurricane evacuation time on the archipelago from 24 hours to 30 hours — a move that would effectively bump up the amount of development allowed in the Keys.

  Emergency managers, environmentalists and a key Monroe County lawmaker called it irresponsible to cram more people and homes in an area where tidal flooding already lasts for months in some pockets and is expected to become worse and more frequent in the future.

“This is foolishness,” said Craig Fugate, Florida’s former director of emergency management and head of FEMA under President Barack Obama. “First of all, 24 hours is a fantasy anyway. That means everything works, nothing breaks, there’s no crashes and everyone leaves when they’re supposed to.”

Hurricane Irma in 2017, for instance, left evacuating Keys residents stuck in hours of traffic on the sole two lane highway connection Key West to the Florida mainland. On the way back, many found themselves stranded in Florida City and Homestead for days. The Category 4 storm also destroyed much of what passed for affordable housing in the region — mobile homes and downstairs enclosures located in flood-prone areas.

  Another impact from the storm: the Keys is getting more than $20 million in federal funds to buy out and demolish homes ruined by Irma. County officials have expressly said they plan to use the buyout dollars to retreat from areas more vulnerable to rising seas.

This legislative change would move more people and buildings into a region already considered one of the most at-risk spots in the state, if not the country.

Credit Tom Hudson / WLRN
A mobile home on Little Torch Key destroyed by Hurricane Irma. Photographed on Sept. 19, 2017.

  “Decisions about disaster preparedness and public safety should be made based on the very real risks and vulnerabilities the Keys are already facing and that will become far more serious due to climate change,” Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “They shouldn’t be based on how much more development can be squeezed into one of the most vulnerable areas in the United States.”

The legislation proposing the change in evacuation times, an amendment to a bill making its way through the committee process, is an attempt to stave off potentially billions of dollars in anticipated legal costs from a flood of expected lawsuits brought by frustrated property owners who won’t be able to build on their land in three years because of a 1972 law aimed at controlling future development.

The Keys is the only spot in Florida with such strict development guidelines. Development is supposed to hit a full stop by 2023, when the county runs out of development permits, known as Rate of Growth Ordinances or ROGOs.

State Rep. Rob Rommel, R-Naples, chair of the Civil Justice Subcommittee, filed the amendment for an extended evacuation window on Wednesday. The evacuation time, which is tied to the number of buildings in the county, has been 24 hours for decades because it’s based on U.S. Census data, and the Keys’ population has long hovered between 70,000 and 80,000 people.

2018 University of Florida study suggests that about 4 percent of the Keys population, mostly lower-income people who lost their housing, left after Irma, which if true would bring the population to just under 74,000 people.

The legislation could potentially unleash a development boom in the Keys, which many say doesn’t have the land or infrastructure to support. More development would make safe evacuation ahead of large hurricanes more difficult, critics of the amendment say.

“The amendment to House Bill 587 late Tuesday evening will clearly make living in the Florida Keys during hurricane season more dangerous than it already is,” Mark Songer, president of Florida Keys environmental group Last Stand, said. “We are looking for ways to prevent the amendment to this bill from becoming law.”

Rommel did not return telephone and texted requests for comment on the amendment.

King tide at the Key Largo Kampground & Marina in Key Largo

  As the 2023 deadline approaches, there are between 6,000 and 10,000 undeveloped properties that will likely stay that way under the current law. Whether or not landowners will be offered what they consider fair compensation from the state will end up a matter for the courts to decide in many cases.

State, county and local officials expect a flood of litigation and a staggering price tag as a result.

Anticipating this, Monroe County legal staff helped write language for a bill that was introduced last legislative session by state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, that would split the liability in these takings cases evenly between the state and county.

County Attorney Bob Shillinger last year explained that the bill, which died in the committee process, is aimed at capping the county’s liability at 50 percent. He said counties and municipalities usually defend such cases in partnership with the state with the understanding there will be a 50/50 apportionment at the end of the litigation. However, if the state delays payments to the affected parties, which happens often, the county’s share could grow because of interest, Shillinger said.

Raschein reintroduced the bill this session, but House Republican leadership has said it will only support it if it contains some language that reduces the state’s risk. One way to do this would be to allow more people to develop their land and weaken the area of critical state concern designation.

Shillinger said if the bill, which passed Rommel’s subcommittee, continues to progress with his amendment, he would recommend that the five-member Board of Monroe County Commissioners rescind its support.

“The amendment would change that law,” he said.

Raschein, too, said she would try to kill the bill if the amendment stays in.

“We’re not built to withstand any more development,” she said Thursday. “And, why is that? We don’t have the land.”

Mike Forster, an elected member of the Village of Islamorada council and a candidate for county commission, said that although he sympathizes with property owners staring down the 2023 deadline, he does not support delaying it because the Keys are built out.

“I get that if you own a property, you want to be able to build on it,” Forster said. “But, this has been around for a long time. This is what you’re getting yourself into if you buy in Monroe County.”

This story was produced by the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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