Facing the possibility of not receiving state-issued building allocations after 2023, the Monroe County Commission agreed Wednesday to have its lobbyists lobby harder for the federal and state government to buy conservation land in the Florida Keys.
Earlier this year, the governor and Florida Cabinet agreed to give the county and Keys municipalities 3,555 building allocations, called Rate of Growth Ordinance (ROGO) units, during the next 10 years.
However, county planning staff is concerned the state might not give any new allocations after that, and that the county and Keys cities could be subject to expensive "takings" lawsuits. If property owners are unable to get building permits, their land can be considered "taken" by the government, which then may have to compensate them for it.
Because of that concern, the commission also agreed Wednesday to look at spreading its share of the annual ROGO allocations, 197 units, over 20 years instead of 10 years.
There are roughly 8,170 vacant private properties in unincorporated Monroe County, with an estimated value of $250 million, according to county planner Mayte Santamaria. Using the roughly $1.5 million the county raises through its Land Trust, it would take the county 41 years to buy that land.
County officials admitted that not all the owners of vacant property would sue the county if they weren't allowed to develop their land, but they wanted to be prepared.
County officials want the state's Florida Forever land conservation fund and federal conservation funds to pay for private land in the Keys, as 7,193 of the properties contain federally listed endangered species or their habitat, and 3,100 of the properties classify for Florida Forever funds.
If the land ended up in the federal or state governments' hands, it would be kept as open space and the county would not be on the hook for a takings lawsuit. The county has been sued frequently in the past several years by people who could not develop their land because of endangered species habitat there.
"There are people we need to get to the table PDQ (pretty darn quick)," County Commissioner David Rice said.
"We need to put together a plan or package for our lobbyists to take to federal and state governments," Commissioner Danny Kolhage added. "We have the capacity to take a serious plan for them to consider, rather than making a vague, general request."
During the past several years, the county has spent most of its lobbying efforts on obtaining wastewater funding.
County Administrator Roman Gastesi cautioned the commission that the Florida Forever budget has shrunk in the past 10 years, saying it's gone from about $200-$300 million to $10 million this year.
A majority of the commission appeared to be against raising property taxes to pay for conservation land. But the commission tentatively agreed to have an organization such as the Trust for Public Lands survey local residents about using tax money to buy the land.
Gastesi plans to bring a contract before the commission within the next several months to have the Trust for Public Lands or a similar group hold scoping meetings and survey residents on their opinions about increasing sales tax, raising property taxes or implementing a toll on U.S. 1 to pay for conservation land.