by Blue Paper staff…….

For the second time (in three months), land developers, led by Frank Toppino and Rockland Operations, LLC, will be asking the Monroe County Commissioners on Wednesday to alter the zoning of 14 acres of vacant land on Big Coppitt Key so that they can build 213 affordable housing units.

The developer’s previous attempt at the vote was abruptly withdrawn one day prior to the November 17, 2015 BOCC agenda.

The reason for the November 17 cancellation, as explained by the developer’s attorney Barton Smith (of Smith Oropeza Hawks, P.I.), was so that the developers could “work out provisions of the site specific zoning.”

The latest version of the amendment request includes a re-shuffling of the mix of affordable housing income categories from staff’s original recommendation of no less than 30% very low-income, 30% low-income, and 30% median-income, to 20 percent low and very-low, 10 percent median, and 70 percent moderate income categories.

The moderate-income limit, according to County guidelines, for a single-person household is $73,440 while moderate-income limits for a two-person household (married or domestic partners) is $111,840. The maximum monthly rental rate for a one-bedroom moderate affordable housing unit is $2,097.

County Commissioners are under intense pressure to vote for affordable housing projects whenever the opportunity presents itself due to the current affordable housing crisis, but many residents disagree with the notion that “moderate-income affordable housing,” with such high income threshholds and with 1-bedroom apartments renting at nearly $2100/month can, in good faith, be called “affordable.”

A groundswell of opposition to the zoning change by neighboring residents and homeowners in Big Coppitt—as evidenced by a boisterous Big Coppitt Town Hall meeting in January—has gathered steam that feeds off fears of major potential adverse impacts to the tranquil working class neighborhood. Doubling or tripling the existing density (there are less than 70 homes on adjacent streets of Riviera Drive and Puerta Drive, and about 210 houses in the Gulfrest subdivision) has residents fretting about traffic congestion and all the problems that come with packing an additional 213 units into 14 acres of land.

“All the traffic flows in and out of 4th Street onto U.S. 1,” one irate resident pointed out to Bart Smith during the January Town Hall meeting. “It’s bad enough as it is, we have to wait ten minutes during rush hour to get on the highway. I can’t imagine how bad it’ll get when you add another 1,000 car trips per day.”

Resident and homeowner Mike Bellows, who lives on Riviera Drive, rattled off a list of the other problems that come with doubling the density overnight: “More barking dogs, more loud music, more drug dealers, more theft, more school busses, more ambulances, more domestic disturbances, more police calls…”

Barton Smith, however, attempted to counter those fears with promises to create multiple ingress/egress points from the proposed site, and he pointed out that housing is a better deal than rock-crushers and warehouses.

“That sounds like blackmail to me,” someone in the Town Hall crowd shouted.

The Navy, which uses a nearby runway at Boca Chica for flight training has also voiced its concern. In a letter to administrator Ray Eubanks at the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Commanding Officer S.P. McAlearney writes ”Naval Air Station Key West is not in favor of any increased residential density in high noise areas 65 DNL and above. Per Naval instruction, residential use is discouraged in DNL 65-69 and strongly discouraged in DNL 70-74. The absence of viable alternative development options should be determined.”

The State Land Planning Agency, for its part, released a report on the zoning change request that addresses that viable alternative. “Based on data submitted by the county,” the report states, the County has 8,168 vacant parcels and 1,970 building permit allocations which leaves a deficit of allocations of 6,198 parcels. The County failed to establish that in the absence of viable alternative development, that a demonstrated community need for the residential use would not be met if development were prohibited in these zones.“

“I know that affordable housing is desperately needed,’ Bellows said, “But at the expense of an existing neighborhood? That doesn’t sound like good politics. Our elected officials aren’t going to be making any friends from this neighborhood if they vote to ruin us.”

The zoning change request is scheduled to be heard at 3:00 PM at the Harvey Government Center on Truman Avenue.

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