The Florida Department of Environmental Protection won't put any of its Keys holdings on the market as part of a statewide sell-off of up to $50 million in conservation lands, the agency announced Thursday.
"All 17 parcels in the Keys have now been removed," Susan Grandin, the director of the DEP's Division of State Lands, announced during a conference call Thursday from Tallahassee. She explained that the Keys' status as an Area of Critical State Concern was a major factor in the decision.
The DEP created a stir around the state with the release last month of a preliminary list of 169 sites, covering 5,300 acres, it had identified as potential surplus lands. Under a law passed by the Florida Legislature this spring, the agency can use proceeds from the sales to purchase up to $50 million in more significant conservation land.
DEP officials have since reduced the surplus list to 113 sites covering roughly 4,200 acres.
Among the properties on the original list were 17 sites in the Keys, all of them located within an approximately 5-mile span between Tavernier and Plantation Key. The largest of the sites, at 9.3 acres, mainly comprised an old quarry, now a lake, off Burton Drive on the ocean side of Tavernier. Most of the other sites were small, hammock-covered lots along the ocean side of the Overseas Highway. All totaled, the properties cover 15.2 acres.
The DEP compiled the statewide surplus list under a weighted process designed to identify which of its properties had the least conservation value and were most suitable for sale.
However, the matrix used by the Trust for Public Land, the contractor that did the evaluation, didn't factor in the Keys' status as an Area of Critical State Concern. As a result of that designation, local governments are required to impose strict growth regulations. Properties that have healthy habitat are especially hard to develop.
Sometimes, though, the rules brush up against the Florida constitutional requirement that property owners have the right to make "beneficial" use of their land.
To mitigate that conflict, local governments and the state have sought to purchase ecologically important lots in the Keys. Monroe County has also fought several property "takings" lawsuits with mixed results. If property owners cannot develop their land, it can be considered "taken" by government.
In what could be the county's worst takings loss in the last decade, an appeals court has already ruled in favor of the Galleon Bay Corp., which owns a No Name Key property. Damages in the case are expected to be $3.5 to $5 million.
In the days leading up to Grandin's statement Thursday, Monroe County Land Authority Executive Director Mark Rosch had appealed to the DEP to remove the Keys properties from the surplus list.
Rosch said he was relieved about the decision.
"These were all environmentally sensitive lands and I'm very happy to see that the state's going to retain ownership of them," he said.
Grandin explained that the DEP listened to concerns from Rosch and members of the public, especially since the original analysis didn't factor in the Keys' Area of Critical State Concern status.
"Our conversation with Mark did point out the environmental as well as growth management reasons for taking them off the list," she said.