ROGO & ROADS: ISLAMORADA READYING FOR BUILDOUT & BIG PROJECTS

In the foreground, Islamorada Councilman David Webb speaks to Monroe County Mayor David Rice before the Nov. 18 Islamorada Village Council meeting. In the background, Islamorada Mayor Buddy Pinder and Village Manager Greg Oravec speak with Village Clerk Kelly Toth. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Buildout and bringing more road projects to fruition are among the larger issues Keys officials are dealing with as 2021 comes to a gradual close. On Nov. 18, Monroe County officials provided Islamorada council members and staff with updates on plans to reduce takings liability and a transportation plan that recommends key projects along the village’s stretch of road. 

Taking to the podium as new Monroe County mayor, David Rice said the check is coming soon as it relates to the more than 8,000 lots in the Keys that won’t have building rights. Of those, 1,070 privately-owned, vacant parcels are located in Islamorada. 

It stems from the Rate of Growth Ordinance (ROGO) in Monroe County, which was implemented in order to provide a swift and safe evacuation from the islands in the event of a hurricane. And with the Keys’ designation as an area of critical state concern by the state Legislature in 1979, ROGO’s implementation in 1992 also set out to protect natural resources in Monroe County. 

Based on a 24-hour evacuation model, the state issued 3,550 ROGO permits through 2023, of which 1,970 are for Monroe County and 280 for Islamorada through July 2023. County officials elected to decrease annual allocations of permits from 126 to roughly 60 per year to extend distribution through 2026. The move gives county officials time to develop land acquisition plans and retire building rights to reduce future takings liability. 

Islamorada hasn’t extended its allocations out to 2026 like the county. Twenty-eight building permits are issued per year in the village. Emily Schemper, county senior director of planning and environmental resources, told the dais that the village could adopt a similar amendment to extend the last three years of its ROGO allocations. 

“If you (the village) could get an amendment in place and effective by next summer, I don’t know if you have time to do that process-wise, you could spread your last remaining (allocations) over four years and get yourselves to 2026. But it would be a big cut in the number of units you give out every year,” she said. 

A 2020 census showed more residents living in the Florida Keys. Schemper said the state departments of Economic Opportunity and Emergency Management will run an evacuation model. Results from the hurricane modeling won’t likely be known until the end of 2022. 

“We’ve been operating under the assumption that we won’t get more building permit allocations. Those extra parcels that are out there, they could potentially be takings suits in the future against the state, county and cities if we don’t get more permits,” she said. 

Among potential solutions to alleviate takings claims is funding within the Florida Keys Stewardship Act for the acquisition of land. Roughly $5 million is allocated for obtaining land in the Keys, but Christine Hurley, executive director with the county Land Authority, said the state Department of Environmental Protection has only averaged $1 million in land purchases in the Keys since the Stewardship Act was passed and signed in 2016. 

Hurley said the county and Islamorada village manager Greg Oravec are partnering to request that DEP purchase more land in the Keys. 

“They indicate that we do not really bring them willing sellers that they can purchase. It’s kind of a community’s job to tell them what’s for sale and what DEP should focus on,” Hurley said. 

The potential future policy and programs Schemper outlined to mitigate takings claims include raising the tourist impact tax or sales tax. The county is also examining adaptation action areas focused on climate change in order to disallow development where sea level rise would put land under the water. Schemper said they did receive grant money to come up with adaptation ideas and language. 

“The county has not pursued adopting those yet, but staff is working on the next step of that to put before the board,” she said. 

ADDRESSING TRAFFIC 

On the transportation side, Monroe county commissioners in early November recommended a set of road and infrastructure projects within a U.S. 1 master plan for the state to focus on. A total of 183 projects were identified for traffic flow improvements and alleviating congestion to enhance safety. Islamorada’s single stretch of road was recommended for a determination on whether turn lanes or access management improvements were needed. The projects also include a review on the possibility of improvements to the Old Highway to better serve as a frontage road. 

Commissioners also prioritized the Snake Creek Bridge replacement, which is currently in the Florida Department of Transportation’s five-year work plan, and changing the weigh station in the Upper Keys to a weigh-in-motion station. 

Schemper said the county is working with Keys municipalities to gather their input to prioritize projects. Once that’s complete, a special meeting will be held in January 2022 to compile the projects. By February 2022, a list will be sent to the state Department of Transportation. 

NOTABLE RESOLUTIONS PASS

Once presentations concluded, Islamorada council members breezed through 16 resolutions. Among items receiving approval was a design for improvements to the dog park at Founders Park. With a project cost of $197,981, about 59,000 square feet of natural glass will be installed. Other amenities include a tiki hut and four tiki umbrellas, a welcome area with leash hanging post, waste depots, doggy splash zones, wading area and wash station, additional seating areas and agility equipment. 

The project is made possible through a Tourist Development Council grant, which will reimburse the village 100% of project costs. 

An agreement with Deckard Technologies to purchase access to its Rentalscape software was approved, in a bid to combat illegal vacation rentals. A contract to provide for short-term rental identification and monitoring services would go for a year at a cost of $25,000. 

Phase two of work for canal restoration on Lower Matecumbe for data collection also received council’s approval. The agreement is with Wood Environmental & Infrastructure Solutions, and costs won’t exceed $58,928. Islamorada is moving forward with evaluating and implementing culvert connections at strategic locations at canals 150,151, 152 and 155. In addition, the project will include the evaluation of adding a culvert connection under U.S. 1 from canal 155 to 157 to provide increasing flushing. 

A resolution was approved to purchase 500 stainless steel check valves for the village low pressure force main at a cost of $144,000. In July, council members approved the purchase of 100 valves. It was found that valves had an estimated 90% failure rate. Funds were included in the wastewater enterprise fund for the replacement cost. 

Council members said “yes” to approve and provide eight affordable housing unit allocations to develop the Woods Avenue lots and nine affordable dwelling unit allocations to develop Gardenia Street lots. During a Sept. 2 meeting, council members approved Habitat for Humanity and Gorman & Company to develop the sites into affordable/workforce housing. 

Council members also approved an agreement with Holiday Lightscapes Inc. for the installation of decorations throughout the village for the holiday season. Among the places that will see holiday décor are Islamorada welcome sign, the North Plantation Key stop light, Founders Park, Islamorada Village Hall, Hurricane Monument and Craig Key. These areas will be decorated with LED lights, garland, wreaths, interactive selfie features, pole mounted and ground level decorations. 

Installation of decorations would begin Nov. 30 with an expected completion time of five days. An adopted budget allocated $50,000 for holiday decorations. The idea for holiday decorations came from Councilman Henry Rosenthal during his first meeting following the November 2020 election. 

“This is really something that we’ve never seen in Islamorada,” Mayor Buddy Pinder said. “This is going to be a different Christmas. It’s going to be beautiful.”

Islamorada Village Council will have a special meeting on Thursday, Dec. 2 at 5:30 p.m. at Founders Park Community Center.

If you would like to have the Weekly delivered to your mailbox or inbox along with our daily news blast, please subscribe here.

Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family (he's expecting a little boy in October).