by Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers
I have long been an advocate of greater affordability of housing in the Keys, from my work with FIRM, to the County’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, to my efforts post-Irma to jump-start construction of workforce housing. It may come as a surprise, then, that I strongly believe the BOCC’s 3-2 vote to begin the process to accept 300 ROGOs for affordable housing is wrong-headed and short-sighted.
We have just spent the past few weeks working to convince legislative leaders that the 24-hour evacuation constraint is essential to preserving the Keys. By accepting the 300, we send a contradictory message to Tallahassee: “just kidding about those 24 hours.” There goes our credibility. And I’m puzzled that some of the very people who voted against streamlining the bureaucratic process to build workforce housing (Goal 109) within our existing capacity jumped at the chance to overdevelop our Keys.
For 28 years, the number of humans our island chain can support has been based on our ability to evacuate residents within 24 hours of landfall of a hurricane. That number has been managed through the distribution of building permits in our ROGO system. This metric has determined our carrying capacity and protected both life and the environment. Our infrastructure (sewers, electricity, freshwater supply, medical facilities, roadways, schools) has been balanced to accommodate it. (Notably, the evacuation model currently assumes a 62% residential occupancy rate during hurricane season.)
Accepting the additional ROGOs above that capacity threatens this balance, and potentially well beyond the 1,300 units that have been offered by the State. Here’s why. If someone can agree to evacuate 48 hours pre-landfall just because they live in a designated workforce housing unit, why can’t someone else sign an affidavit agreeing to evacuate in 48 hours or to spend hurricane season outside of the Keys, and thus receive a building permit?
We are not talking, then, about 1,300 units, but about 8,860 more dwelling units, because 7,560 undeveloped parcels will remain at the end of ROGO. 8,860 units means over 20,000 more residents. It means millions if not billions of dollars to scale up infrastructure. It means more traffic, more impact to nearshore waters, more environmental stress, all while we face expensive mitigation and adaptation projects to address sea level rise. Thanks to supply and demand, it means a loss in value of existing developed properties. And what about US1? Is it even feasible to widen the road and 42 bridges to move more traffic? I doubt it.
Further, the 48-hour constraint for the workforce is impractical. Our workforce – utility workers, deputies, public works employees – are the last to evacuate when a storm threatens. They button-up the Keys as residents leave, and some are required to stay during a storm. Tourists must get out of town 48 hours before landfall, and hotel staff must check them out and secure hotel property – not to mention their own homes – before a storm hits. These are the people who inhabit affordable developments. What do we do if they can’t or won’t leave? Evict them?
Mother Nature is the greatest complication. The weather service will admit that while their predictive capabilities of a storm’s track have improved, their ability to forecast strength is not perfect. A storm that appears benign and doesn’t trigger an early evacuation makes a sudden turn, increases speed or intensifies significantly, and we are left with no time to get off the rock. The Labor Day storm of 1935 and more recently, Hurricane Michael, are prime examples.
Anyone who has been here for any length of time also knows that storms don’t always end up being as damaging as predicted. As a former hotelier, I closed my doors and sent my guests home 8 times in 14 months during the ’04-’05 seasons, when just one of those storms actually caused serious damage to Key West. Evacuations 48 hours in advance sometimes prove unnecessary – and expensive for both businesses and employees.
Finally, the entire proposal has been challenged in court, with no judicial decision expected until May. There was no reason to take any action until that legal battle is settled, no reason to have staff spend time and tax dollars on an issue that may, in the end, be moot. The BOCC voted a year ago to hold off on any decision until that case was settled. What changed?
This was a hasty decision and bad public policy. It threatens our people’s safety, our environment and our quality of life.
Mayor Heather Carruthers
Monroe County Commissioner, District 3
February 21, 2020