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Keys look to 'raise the roof' to help homeowners cope with rising seas

A graphic showing how new measurements of base flood elevation could affect height limits in the Keys.
Monroe County
New flood maps and a new way of measuring elevation are expected to add an average of 3 1/2 feet to base flood elevation (BFE) in the Keys.

In the Florida Keys, you can't go inland to get away from rising seas. So the adaptation strategy is to elevate.

And the Army Corps of Engineers' coastal flood plan for the Keys calls for elevation, not buyouts — because property in the island chain is so valuable that it's cheaper to raise homes than to purchase them.

To help homeowners deal with higher flood projections, Monroe County wants to increase its residential height limit from 35 to 40 feet.

That would apply in unincorporated areas of the county, like Key Largo and the Lower Keys. Cities like Key West, Marathon and Islamorada have their own land-use rules.

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Between new flood maps and a change in how elevation is measured, Keys homeowners are looking at an average increase of 3 ½ feet in base flood elevation, according to Emily Schemper, the county's senior director of planning and environmental resources.

In grant programs to help people pay for elevating their homes, the state is encouraging people to build at least three feet above that base flood elevation, according to the county.

"I call it the squish factor," Schemper said. "You have to elevate a certain amount, and then you have a height limit. If you have to elevate it more, you're getting squished in the vertical height you can build.

Monroe County Mayor David Rice said he has a preferred method of selling the increase.

"You're taking some height off the bottom to make it go higher," said Monroe County Mayor David Rice. "And unless we develop a race of very short people who could live in those houses, you need to raise the roof."

Commissioners talked about adding an additional 2 feet to the new limit to be in line with what some cities in the Keys allow — but decided against it. Commissioner Craig Cates said he was worried some people would not need the whole extra five feet of elevation and would use the extra height allowance to add another story to their homes.

"We're only talking about raising 2 feet below it, but then we're going to go 5 feet on top of it," he said. "I hate to see us keep chipping away at raising the height of the Keys.

Commissioners unanimously voted to send the proposed 40-foot limit to the state. The state has to approve all land-use decisions in the Keys because the island chain is an area of critical state concern.

If the state approves the new limit, it would come back to the county for final approval and would not take effect until the new FEMA flood maps are in place. The county is currently appealing those maps. Schemper said she estimates the earliest they would go into effect would be at the end of this year or early 2023.

Want to keep up with the latest stories out of the Florida Keys like this one? Sign up for The Tieline, our newsletter focused on all things Keys and Monroe County. The newsletter will arrive in your inbox twice a month and is written and curated by WLRN’s southernmost reporter Nancy Klingener. She shares her reporting, the latest news out of the Keys and much more. Head here to sign up.