October 10, 2018

KEY LARGO — Florida Keys residents using Hurricane Irma as an opportunity to illegally clear vacant lots and other parcels of land have put $15,000 so far in Monroe County’s pocket in paid code compliance fines.

Two months after the Sept. 10 hurricane, illegally cleared properties totaled 50 in the Upper Keys, 18 in the Middle Keys and 17 in the Lower Keys. The Upper Keys number had more than doubled from 19 in mid-October.

Since then the numbers have continued to rise.

Code Compliance Senior Director Cynthia McPherson last week reported 73 open cases in Key Largo, with seven pending inspection and research. Eight cases were cited, all involving the same property owner, and $15,000 in fines had been collected.

The Middle Keys have 20 open cases with two pending inspection. There was one case cited with no money collected. The Lower Keys have 49 open cases with three pending inspection and research.

McPherson said most of the lot clearings had little to do with storm-related damage.

Monroe County Code Compliance has used aerial photos of the islands to show vegetation on properties before and after the hurricane.

Fines for clearing native vegetation without a permit can amount to $15,000 as seen in the Key Largo case.

Those determined to have cleared properties without permits must submit to annual inspections for three years to ensure an 80 percent survival rate of replanted trees. If trees are dying or dead, the property owner must replace them. The case will remain open and no application for a building permit will be processed or issued during that time, which effectively prohibits development for at least three years.

Key Largo, which was least impacted by the Category 4 storm, had a majority of the county’s illegally cleared lots, which angered some residents.

Hammer Point Owners Association President Burke Cannon previously told the Free Press that he sees it as a matter of greed and avarice for some.

“It was people taking advantage of an emergency situation,” he said.

Removal of exotic vegetation also requires a permit. The permit is free and no mitigation is required. Applications are available at Monroe County building departments in Key Largo at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center, 102050 Overseas Highway, in Marathon at 2798 Overseas Highway and in Stock Island at 5503 College Road.