a group of people sitting in chairs in front of a projector screen
Monroe County commissioners and staff review new findings about the number of vacant lots left in the Keys on March 20, 2024, in Key Largo. GWEN FILOSA/Keys Weekly

For years, the number of remaining vacant, buildable lots floating across the Florida Keys was just under 8,000. 

People across the island chain would ballpark the number of privately-owned parcels still available at 7,900 when talking about development and real estate deals or concerns over quality of life and environmental health. 

But realistically the number is less than half, hovering around 3,000, according to new findings by the county planner released to the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners on March 20.

The new estimated total of 3,000 in the Keys is based on applying zoning requirements that would allow construction on the lots, such as removing those that are essentially submerged land. It’s not a final tally, but rather a far more realistic take than the longstanding 7,900 figure.

“It is approximate; I probably missed some,” said Emily Schemper, the county’s planning and environmental resources director.

After two months of sifting through data and applying zoning laws to each parcel, Schemper found 2,200 lots in unincorporated Monroe that could potentially support development. The city of Marathon reported having about 550 while Islamorada clocked its total at 200.

At the very least, Monroe could put the new 3,000 number into hurricane evacuation models used by the state, Schemper said. 

“I am not suggesting or proposing that that becomes the preferred number for proposed ROGO allocations,” she told the BOCC. 

Many people have been focused on FloridaCommerce’s use of the 7,900 available lots to come up with various evacuation models that they released late last year.

Key Colony Beach doesn’t participate in ROGO and doesn’t appear interested in starting now, Schemper said. Ocean Reef also wasn’t included. 

The city of Key West reported having 84 lots but has likely already assigned allocations for them, county staff said. 

When the Florida state department rebranded as FloridaCommerce released hurricane evacuation models, linked to the number of new building permits made available to the Keys, it used a maximum figure of 7,954 – including some 6,000 in unincorporated Monroe. 

The BOCC has the rest of the year to respond to the state with a request for Rate-of-Growth allocations and a hurricane evacuation plan. So they’ve assigned themselves a crash course in their available options.

In 2020, the county adopted ordinances to extend remaining allocations through 2026. 

At the same time, people in the Keys say it’s time to stop encouraging development of an already fragile environment where traffic on U.S. 1 has become routinely nightmarish in the Upper Keys and the water pipeline is under construction due to failings.

“We need to take as few ROGOs as possible,” Dottie Moses, president of the Island of Key Largo Federation of Homeowner Associations. “Our future is at stake.”

Bracing for potential lawsuits

When it comes to limiting development, looming over Keys officials is the vision of having to fend off a crush of new lawsuits seeking millions upon millions in compensation. 

Monroe County leaders and staff are studying takings case law, or the liability the government has for being accused of depriving people of property, in this case rendering it undevelopable, and how to fend off such suits. 

The county could explore putting a moratorium on property development as it works on a response to the state on building permits, according to its legal team. 

“A moratorium would be appropriate and would be defensible,” Assistant County Attorney Derek Howard told the BOCC at a special ROGO workshop in Key Largo on March 20. 

“It’s not a permanent ban on development,” Howard said. “Just for the time being while we figure out how to proceed in the face of the shortage of allocations while we decide what we want to ask for from the state.”

Since 1987, Monroe County has had 58 takings-related cases and today has one remaining pending claim. 

The county prevailed in all cases except for five, which cost more than $6.8 million in compensation. The payouts ranged from $75,000 to a blistering $5.9 million settlement in 1995, by far the worst loss for Monroe. 

“The state hung us out to dry,” County Attorney Bob Shillinger said, of the single settlement. “It was the late ’90s. I don’t know if (the case) would be settled the same way today.”

Things have changed since 1995, including case law becoming more favorable to local government, Howard said. 

“Takings will always be a thing in Monroe County,” Howard said. “The takeaway is it’s a manageable risk.”

Gwen Filosa
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.