Law enforcement professionals and first responders from throughout Monroe County joined the Board of County Commissioners on April 19 to recognize Lt. Kathleen McKinney for her 40 years of service. KRISTEN LIVENGOOD/Monroe County.

A new hurricane evacuation model is on the way, with massive implications for continued development in Monroe County.

The April 19 meeting of the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) marked the commission’s first public exchange with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) as the agency works to create new data-driven hurricane evacuation models for the Florida Keys. The evacuation models, and the statutes they inform, are monumentally important to future development in the Keys, as building allocations dwindle across multiple municipalities within the Keys’ closely-monitored Areas of State Concern. 

The statutes have significant legal implications as Keys governments brace for possible takings cases and other litigation when building allocations expire. One such high-profile case resulted in the temporary revocation of 1,300 affordable housing allocations – some of which were already built and occupied – in August 2022 based on statutory language involving the models.

And as Keys utilities and infrastructure struggle to support increasing crowds, with developers eyeing nearly every buildable space throughout the islands, residents have begun to question whether development has already reached a breaking point.

Based on 2010 census data, the prior evacuation model created in 2012 paved the way for a regimented distribution of 3,550 residential building permits distributed throughout the county over a 10-year period from 2013 to 2023. In theory, the number of allocations given would continue to allow for safe evacuation of the Keys over a 24-hour period in the event of an impending storm.

Addressing the commission, acting DEO Secretary Meredith Ivey said that DEO is still in a stage of research and fact-finding as it works with the Division of Emergency Management to create a more formal report by the end of the calendar year based on 2020 census data.

“We recognize there is a need to update this evacuation model, and it is foundational for planning residential development in the Florida Keys over the coming decade,” she said. “Over the last several months, we have met with various local government officials and other stakeholders regarding the need for additional allocations to address affordable housing development pressures and takings claims.”

In addition to accounting for site-built homes, tourist units, and vehicle use in relation to the road capacity along U.S. 1, the new model would account for mobile homes and certain military personnel – some of which were previously included in a 48-hour evacuation – in its 24-hour evacuation.

While DEO regional planning administrator Barbara Powell said the new model is largely produced by updating the variables used to create the previous iteration – including the use of the same modeling program, as confirmed by Ivey – County Administrator Roman Gastesi stressed a need for community involvement as the new model takes shape, highlighting the importance of future workshops or meetings where residents can provide their impressions and concerns directly to DEO. 

“Let’s make sure that whatever assumptions we’re going to make, the community is on board,” he said.

A ‘Breakthrough’ for Specialty Contractor Licensing Carve-out

Lisa Tennyson, the county’s legislative affairs director, delivered an update on efforts in the current Florida legislative session to modify or repeal House Bill 735. As the subject of understandable uproar among local contractors since it took effect in July 2021, the bill prevents local governments from offering specialty licenses. While not required in other areas of the state with looser requirements, the Keys’ designation as an Area of Critical State Concern requires contractors to pull permits for even small jobs like laying pavers or putting up a fence, rendering them unable to do many jobs legally if existing specialty licenses expire this July.

Though Tennyson said the House has “wanted to do little or nothing to help” House Bill 1383, which would provide relief, she praised the “unbelievable leadership” of Rep. Jim Mooney to keep the bill alive.

“Just this week, the Senate and House bills have been amended to offer some carve-out relief for Monroe County in terms of these licenses,” she said. “It’s been a big breakthrough, and we’re fairly confident that those bills will proceed.”

As of April 24, the bill had passed through committees but had yet to see a full vote in the Florida House or Senate.

In Other News:

  • Following a presentation from board chair Mel Montagne of Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe (FIRM), a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy and lobbying group that works to bring insurance inequities to light in the eyes of state officials, the commission elected to give the group $50,000 to continue addressing pressing concerns affecting Keys property owners.
  • The commission unanimously voted to approve an employment agreement with current Medical Examiner Michael Steckbauer to create a County Medical Examiner Department with Steckbauer as its head. Addressing the commission, Steckbauer said that absorbing the previously independent office will allow for greater control of the position and easier recruitment of new employees as necessary.
  • The commission unanimously approved an ordinance to create the Richard A. Recupero Park at Key West’s Hawk Missile Site. As set forth in the ordinance, the park will be open for recreational use by the public between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. Camping, alcohol, fires, grilling, drones and overnight parking are prohibited.
  • The commission unanimously accepted a proposal from Banc of America Capital Corp. to provide the county with lease-purchase financing for the three Leonardo AW139 helicopters that will eventually replace the current Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Trauma Star air ambulances. The 15-year agreement for the $53 million purchase comes with an interest rate of 3.25%.
  • Dozens of law enforcement personnel and other first responders filled the meeting’s early portion to support Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Kathleen McKinney. Due to retire after 40 years of service, McKinney was presented with an Honorary Conch certificate by the commission.
Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.