The Key West Mystique

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Key West tropical forest path

Monroe County Land Authority spends millions to protect fragile Keys ecosystem

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.


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Since 1988, when it undertook its first conservation land use project, the Monroe County Land Authority has protected 5,100 parcels totaling more than 4,400 acres of property in the Florida Keys. That includes 4,000 acres of conservation land, 18 recreational sites and enough affordable housing sites, plus subsidies, to provide more than 1,300 dwelling units.

In the 2023 fiscal year, the county’s Land Authority spent $7,509,029 and bought 291 parcels of land — 139.6 acres — of potentially developable land. Some was vacant; some had had structures.

Of the total, 270 were for conservation and 4 for affordable housing. The remaining 17 included voluntary home buyouts (8), density-reduction properties (6) and help for state conservation purchases (3).

OK, I get it. That’s a lot of numbers. Stick with me; there are reasons they’re important.

A couple weeks ago as I listened to an excellent web presentation sponsored by Last Stand on the history of Keys land development, I jumped when expert environmental land-use attorney Richard Grosso criticize Monroe County on its land acquisition priorities.

Grosso is THE go-to expert on the Keys’ complicated balance between an at-risk ecosystem and the need for sensible residential and commercial development. I trust him. So I was nonplussed when he seemingly flubbed a sidebar comment in a 90-minute presentation.

I paraphrase, but here’s the gist of it: Monroe County used to focus on conservation land acquisitions, he said, but recently it’s paid more attention to buying land for affordable housing and to defend against takings lawsuits. The priority should be protecting environmentally-sensitive land.

Monroe County land authority

Monroe County land authority | Millions for the fragile ecosystem

Why was I startled? Because as a long-time member of the Monroe County Comprehensive Plan Land Authority Board Advisory Committee, I knew the millions of dollars I’ve had a hand in spending were, and are, heavily weighted to buying land for conservation.

So I went back to the 2023 annual report and asked Land Authority Executive Director Christine Hurley to help me understand the acquisition trend lines over the past decade. Let me make this clear: I’m writing for myself, not for the advisory committee, the Land Authority or the Board of County Commissioners. You know the drill: My opinions do not necessarily reflect those of others.

Land conservation has been the advisory committee’s charter priority for decades. The committee, which makes purchase recommendations to the County Board, when it sits as the Land Authority, reviews only potential conservation and affordable housing purchases, though we are aware of the other kinds of purchases and how they fit into the overall land-use priorities.

Our goal is to buy a property, remove it permanently from development and preserve and manage it as environmentally sensitive land. Do we recommend land purchases for affordable housing? Absolutely, and we increased those efforts after Hurricane Irma in 2017 as needs escalated throughout the Keys.

We track public and private sales prices to ensure the Land Authority can compete against private developers and buyers. But we don’t overpay for a property or lowball a desperate owner. When a property is within the Florida Forever boundaries, we sell it to the state — at the price we paid — for permanent environmental protection. In 2016, as part of the Florida Keys Stewardship Act, the state committed $5 million in one-time funding to the Keys for acquisition of environmentally sensitive land. The Land Authority hopes to finish that fund in 2024; it came close in 2023.

Besides the one-time Stewardship Act grant, funding for Land Authority purchases comes from two recurring sources: (1) a surcharge on admissions and overnight stays at state parks within unincorporated Monroe County, and (2) a 50 percent share of the 1 percent tourist impact tax charged on lodging in the Florida Keys. Key West gets the all of the admission surcharge paid by Fort Zach visitors. Homeowners and businesses aren’t paying for acquisitions unless they’re going to the parks or staying in visitor lodging.

There’s very little land left in the Keys to develop– and when it’s available it’s almost always tiny lots rarely exceeding 4,000 square feet. So when the state says we can have 8,000 new building permits, let’s remember that of those 8,000 supposedly vacant properties, only about 3,000 are buildable. The rest are either underwater or already classified as so environmentally sensitive that no permits would ever be available.

Land-use frustrations make great cocktail conversation, social media posts and campaign fodder. Over the next year as discussions heat up over how much development we will allow in the Keys, and tempers fray over allocating Rate of Growth Ordinance (ROGO) and Building Permit Allocations (BPAS) units, let’s not get sidetracked with the idea that Monroe County is sacrificing environmentally sensitive land to lawsuits and affordable housing. That’s not happening.


Maps of protected and available land in the Keys and Key West
2023 Annual Report (Best viewed at full screen)


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