Made up of almost 1,700 independent islands, the Florida Keys is a globally recognized vacation destination with gorgeous beaches, vast ocean views, and breathtaking nature. The future of the Keys is up in the air, however, as growth and development could stop all together in a few short years.
The Florida state government introduced legislation in 1972 that would halt all new building permits in the Florida Keys in 2023.
As this date grows closer arguments and speculation around this legislation begin to show up in headlines and debates. Everyone is on edge to see which way the law will unfold.
The Regional Evacuation Transportation Analysis is the standard model to determine the ability of local areas to evacuate in the event of an emergency. In 1972 this model predicted that the Keys would not be able to evacuate 100% of the population in 24 hours in the event of a hurricane if building rates continued on.
The study found that there was the equivalent of an hour of evacuation time to build with. This hour equated to about 3,500 more buildings. Looking at the building trends at the time, the year 2023 was chosen to mark the deadline for building in the Florida Keys.
There are reports of anywhere from 3,500 – 10,000 undeveloped lots in the Florida Keys. That’s thousands of lots that have been purchased, but not yet built upon. A reason that these lots have sat around undeveloped is because Monroe County instituted a Rate of Growth Ordinance system (ROGO) to control building in the keys so they couldn’t build on their land whenever they wanted.
ROGO stands for Rate of Growth Ordinance. It is a tool used by Monroe County in Florida to slow and control growth and development in the Florida Keys. The tool uses a rating system to give building permits to certain applications in specific regions of the Keys.
Slowing growth through the ROGO system allows time for local planning. It also gives the area time to implement evacuation and environmental protection standards in the keys since it is an area susceptible to high levels of tourism and growth.
The awarding of building permits is made competitive through the ROGO process as well. Both commercial and residential building projects have to apply and compete for a limited number of permits each year.
Every year, through the ROGO program, the number of permits available splits between the Upper Keys, Lower Keys, and the Pig Pine and No Name Keys areas within Monroe County.
Because of this process for getting a building permit in the keys, many landowners have been waiting for their chance to build. With only a few years to go before legislation halts any additional building permits, there is bound to be backlash from those who have been waiting their turn for their permit. If it is not awarded by 2023, then they lose their chance to build on their own land.
The state of Florida expects to be sued by these landowners. A bill has also been passed to make local municipalities as responsible as the state if landowners win any lawsuits. This means that the payout could be paid 50/50 by the state and the county.
There are a number of arguments against this deadline – many of which question the authority of the evacuation analysis.
Since the 1970s the amount of technology and preventive action was taken in the event of an upcoming hurricane has advanced. It’s rare that only 24 hours notice is given to evacuate an area, let alone that all of the population would be evacuated all at the same time.
Another argument against this evacuation analytic is that the Keys are largely made up of a seasonal population. The likelihood that the area would be at 100% population during hurricane season is low. Many of the buildings are occupied by snowbirds and seasonal visitors who do not stay during hurricane season, meaning that the actual number of people needing to evacuate is lower than predicted.
The difficulty in being tasked with leading these regulations and processes is that much of the studies about hurricane evacuations are subject to behavioural practices in a time of crisis.
One study from the Yale program of Climate Change Communication found that the decision to evacuate or not in the event of a hurricane often depends on personal past experience. If they evacuated and it worked well for them, they would be more likely to do it again than someone who chose to evacuate and had a bad experience.
What makes personal behaviour dangerous in these situations is that hurricanes vary in strength and danger. What worked out for someone in the past may not work a second time around.
Other times, people simply choose not to leave. According to the Washington Post, possible job opportunities during clean up, emotional ties to their homes, money, and the physical inability to leave are all reasons that someone could choose to stay in the event of a hurricane. The same as a personal emotional state, these reasons could change from one evacuation to another.
While it is often better to error on the side of caution, the growth and development of the Keys for commercial businesses, schools, and community buildings could impact the lifestyle of those living on the islands. Because of the impact, this change could have on the lifestyle and resources for locals, local articles argue that halting building could do more harm than good in the community.
Although hurricane evacuation is a crucial argument for this legislation, there are a few other reasons that this legislation could follow through.
The Florida Keys are being greatly affected by rising sea levels. Just as Miami Beach is expected to disappear in the coming years, the rising tide is claiming the coast of the Keys for the ocean. The shrinking landscape could indicate a more apparent need to protect that which isn’t yet developed.
This relates directly to the second point: Environmental protection.
A number of animals in the Keys – including Key Deer, Lower Keys marsh rabbit, Key Largo cotton mouse and the Key Largo woodrat – are considered endangered animals. With the rising tide eating away at the habitat, the continual growth of developed areas could contribute to the loss of ecosystems and habitats for these animals and many more.
There are a few predictions about what could happen when we finally get to 2023. These range from county defiance from state rule to a large legal battle between landowners and the Florida Government.
One argument is that if the state wants to impose this rule, then they can also be the ones to enforce it. Some believe that the county could continue to use the ROGO system to maintain slow and continual growth without halting permits altogether.
Headlines already cover the preparation that the state is going through to get ready to be sued. These preparations include the 50/50 partnership with local counties to share ownership should landowners win.
The state of Florida could offer to buy the undeveloped land back from those who do not end up securing their building permits by 2023. This may work more in conjunction with them being sued as a way to work with landowners to find a solution.
Since this entire conversation revolves about the safe evacuation timeline, many want the state to adopt a modernized evacuation analysis model that takes updates of the 21st century into consideration. While this may just move the date back a few years it could give the state some more time to work with permit holders.
No matter what happens in the Keys the 2023 deadline brings to light a possible future where governments could be tasked with dictating where, when, and how much building can be completed. Whether the Keys see a halt in building in a few years or not, it’s clear that this conversation is nowhere near being done.
The environmental well-being of our planet is so unknown. We have seen an increase in forest fires ravaging countries and states, rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes, drought, and all other kinds of extreme weather driving people from their homes.
Both where to build and what to build with are conversations that need to be taken seriously in order to keep people safe both in their homes and in the instances where evacuation is necessary. The 2023 Florida Keys deadline is an example of how these decisions need to be taken seriously, to be judged accordingly, and to be done so while including local communities in the conversation.