A line of cars moves slowly through Islamorada. KEYS WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

Monroe County leaders must make a pivotal recommendation to the state in the coming weeks on hurricane evacuation plans for the Florida Keys. 

The task: Review an array of evacuation models, or scenarios, unveiled by the state last week, and request the Florida powers that be sign off on it. 

And any evacuation timeline goes hand-in-hand with the number of new building permits that could materialize across the island chain. Factored in at the same time are the most critical concerns for everyone who lives and visits the Keys, county leaders said during an online meeting on Monday, Nov. 20.

“We need to find that sweet spot between public safety, quality of life and environmental conservation,” said County Administrator Roman Gasetsi. 

The current models, based on population data and a simulation of evacuation using the Keys’ roadways before a disaster event, form the basis for a limit on building allocations in Monroe County. 

The Zoom meeting, attended by Keys leaders from Key West to Key Largo, and led by Monroe County Emergency Management Director Shannon Weiner, was called after state officials held online meetings of their own last week.

The state Department of Commerce hosted two online meetings on proposed evacuation models for the Keys. But public participation was limited. Any questions had to be submitted in advance and there wasn’t a real-time question-and-answer session or a chance for people to ask follow-up questions. 

State administrators haven’t given county leaders an exact deadline to make a decision. County attorney Shillinger said the BOCC has until early to mid-January, but he prefers the BOCC decides before the Legislature convenes on Jan. 8, 2024.

The Board of County Commissioners meets at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 13 at the Murray Government Center in Key Largo.

Gastesi, who called the Nov. 20 meeting a “community conversation,” and Shillinger fielded wide-ranging questions for about an hour about the possible consequences attached to the evacuation plan.

In the screenshot, Monroe County leaders, including County Administrator Roman Gastesi, top right, and County Attorney Bob Shilinger, discuss the state’s evacuation models on a Zoom call held Nov. 20.

How it works

The Florida Legislature sets the evacuation time period – currently 24 hours for the Florida Keys Area of Critical State Concern – by statute, Shillinger said. But the actual distribution and award of allocations based on this time frame comes from a Florida panel called the administrative commission, made up of the governor and his cabinet members.

Once the allocations are awarded to a municipality or the county, local governments can control the rate of distribution, Shillinger said, but they’ll always be under scrutiny. 

The complete expiration of building allocations will soon open the floodgates for regulatory takings cases, a hot-button concern among Keys officials. Takings cases occur when governmental regulations limit the use of private property to such a degree that the landowner is essentially deprived of all economically reasonable use and value of their property. 

Building allocations must allow for a complete evacuation of the Keys’ permanent residents in 24 hours or less. Modifications of this model – upping the evacuation to 30 or 36 hours, for instance – based on 2020 census data and updated simulations, could theoretically allow for thousands of additional allocations.

At present, there are an estimated 7,950 buildable lots left in the Keys, but nowhere near that number of building permits. That puts a massive price tag in front of either the state or the county. 

“There is takings liability if there is no chance whatsoever to develop, so there’s a balance to be struck there,” Shillinger said. “If a jurisdiction were to take them and then hold them and not give them out, they might face some financial liability.”

Takings law is made by judges’ interpretations, Gastesi said. 

“We have a much more friendly property rights bench at the U.S. Supreme Court and we have a much more property rights-friendly bench at the Florida Supreme Court,” Gastesi said. “We will be relying on existing case law, but we also have to be mindful that the parameters to which it’s applied will change. The trick is to not be anchored into the false sense of security that long-standing cases are always going to remain the same.”

Fear vs. reality on takings

Robert Gold, of Key West, brought up the connection between developers and politicians. 

“Once the jurisdictions have the ability to issue permits, it will be the result of a political process, essentially pressure from the community versus pressure from the developers that may result in how many allocations are issued,” Gold said.  

Gold asked the county attorney and administrator for details about the Keys’ experience with takings cases, “before we start using the specter of takings to inform a political decision.”

“We need facts,” Gold said. “What is the reality of takings versus the mythology of takings?”

Gold is on the board of the environmental protection group Last Stand, but said he was speaking for himself on the call. 

Just the mention of takings cases causes anxiety for property owners, said Gold.

“That word gets thrown around a lot, including by some of our elected officials who may be on this call,” Gold said. “ How many cases have been brought? How many have been argued successfully in Monroe County? We need to know before a decision is made because of an anxiety about takings.”

Gwen Filosa is The Keys Weekly’s Digital Editor, and has covered Key West news, culture and assorted oddities since she moved to the island in 2011. She was previously a reporter for the Miami Herald and WLRN public radio. Before moving to the Keys, Gwen was in New Orleans for a decade, covering criminal courts for The Times-Picayune. In 2006, the paper’s staff won the Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news and the Public Service Medal for their coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. She remains a devout Saints fan. She has a side hustle as a standup comedian, and has been a regular at Comedy Key West since 2017. She is also an acclaimed dogsitter, professional Bingo caller and a dedicated Wilco fan.