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hurricane evacuation

Hurricane evacuation | Realistically, getting out ahead of a Cat 3 is not easy to do

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

11/24/2023

Can we agree on one thing about hurricane evacuation? Can we put aside our fascination with minutiae and our escalating outrage with over-development, failing infrastructure and political partisanship, and agree on this: Monroe County, Key West and the other Keys municipalities must speak with one voice when we tell the governor and the legislature that there’s no way under God’s blue sky our island chain can evacuate its visitors and residents before a hurricane if we add excessive building permits.

To those who want all building stopped now and forever, get this straight: That’s not going to happen. To those property-rights folks who want 7,954 allocations to build insanely on vacant lots, that’s not happening either.

Between those two outlier extremes, there are three compromises that could viably balance growth and development and the catastrophic financial impact of property-rights lawsuits with public safety and environmental protection. Of the three, only one consistently meets the state’s requirement that permanent residents are evacuated at least 24 hours before a hurricane, and it requires residents of mobile homes to be evacuated 48 hours ahead along with visitors.

Over the past two weeks, the state Department of Commerce gave Monroe County its assessment of hurricane evacuation times in the Keys. The results aren’t pretty, which will be of no surprise to anyone who tried to get out of town during Hurricane Irma. Right now the state says we have to complete mandatory hurricane evacuation of permanent residents in 24 hours or less in advance of a Category 3 or above hurricane. Visitors have be leaving 48 hours before permanent residents.

The 24-hour limit for permanent residents could mean no more ROGO or BPAS units for the county and its municipalities and no more building permits. And while that might make some giddy, it’s neither a smart decision nor a likely one. (ROGO is an acronym for Rate of Growth Ordinance. BPAS stands for Building Permit Allocation System. They are the same thing and are names for Florida’s points system that regulates new building in the Keys.)

Hurricane evacuation | Option S4 makes the most sense

By Dec. 13 Monroe County wants all municipal entities, including Key West, to reach a collective decision on which option presented by the Department of Commerce all will support. The timeline is tight because the state will make decisions on evacuation times and both BPAS and ROGO allocations during its upcoming Legislative session and likely as early as January 2024.

Once the evacuation time is established (and there is no sense from Monroe County officials that residential evacuation should exceed 24 hours), the allocations will be made by the governor and his cabinet sitting as the Administration Commission.

Here are the five options presented by the DOC:

  • Option S1: 3,550 allocations distributed based on county/municipality population size.
  • Option S2: 3,550 allocations distributed as a percentage of vacant lands per county/municipality.
  • Option S3: 3,550 allocations distributed based on current allocations: Monroe County (1,970); Marathon (300); Islamorada (280); Key West (910); Layton (30); and Key Colony Beach (60).
  • Option S4: 11 allocations distributed annually among Monroe County (5); Marathon (2); Islamorada (2); and Key West (2 for affordable housing only). This option is predicted to allow 10 years of growth before exceeding the 24-hour evacuation cap if residents of mobile homes leave earlier.
  • Option S5: 7,954 allocations, one for each of the current vacant and (maybe) buildable lots throughout the Keys.

Option S4 is my choice, in case you’re wondering.

The county has four goals in deciding which option, perhaps with modifications or clarifications, works best: public safety, timely evacuation of visitors and residents, balanced growth and environmental protection.

As I listened to the county’s informational webinar on Monday, Nov. 20, it was clear no one on that call, which included county and city officials and staff and concerned residents, was interested in dumping excessive development onto the Keys’ overburdened infrastructure. No one.

It was equally clear that property-rights lawsuits loom large in whatever decision is made. As long as allocations are available and as long as there is a chance, no matter how difficult the process, that a property owner could eventually build, the county can limit the financial catastrophe that could result from upwards of 8,000 owners of vacant property claiming they’d been denied their state-law-protected property rights.

I have little to no sympathy for people who buy vacant land in the Keys without doing their due diligence on what it takes to build here, but stupid doesn’t preclude one from suing. So, since it would be my tax dollars defending those court cases or paying out those claims, I am all in favor of keeping takings lawsuits into account.

Monroe County and its municipalities have a future-setting decision to make in less than a month. I encourage them to vote unanimously for Option 4. One voice. One fight.

Understanding Monroe County land use plan

Land use planning is not for the faint of heart, especially in the Keys. Both Key West and the Keys are state-designated Areas of Critical State Concern, a designation that significantly limits the kinds of development allowed in order to protect the endangered ecosystems.

There are local, state and federal rules that determine how land is used and they must be aligned. The Monroe County Comprehensive Land Plan Authority takes the lead in land use planning, property acquisition for environmental protection, affordable housing and the retirement of development rights. Over the years, Monroe County and the state have spent millions of dollars protecting these fragile properties.

Disclosure: I am a member of the land authority’s advisory committee and, as such, I participate in decisions on which properties are purchased for environmental protection and affordable housing.

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