Officials in Monroe County, Florida, which includes the Florida Keys, are caught in a classic land management dilemma—how to manage growth in an orderly manner and pay for the high cost of protecting environmentally sensitive lands in an area that is ripe for development. One solution is a controversial proposal by local officials to ask the National Park Service to acquire some of the property.
Here's a little background to help understand the issues. In 1975 the State of Florida designated the Florida Keys as an "Area of Critical State Concern" due to the area's environmental sensitivity and high potential for development. An underlying issue is the need to limit population grown to levels that permit a timely evacuation of the Keys when a hurricane threatens.
In the face of what the county describes as explosive growth since the 1980s, local officials have adopted a complex series of ordinances that attempt to identify areas with the highest environmental sensitivity. Development of those sites is restricted through allocation of building permits. That process has pitted conservationists and the county against developers and some private landowners.
At the heart of the issue are more than 7,300 acres, divided among over 6,000 vacant lots that are included in the county's development restrictions. The county has acquired some of these tracts by negotiated purchases and several others through very expensive condemnation proceedings. Landowner rights advocates claim the government is paying far less than the lots are worth.
There's a lot of money at stake. Earlier this year, a jury awarded over $5 million to owners of a 22-acre parcel that state appraisers had valued at $100,000. The county has already raised property taxes to help pay for expensive litigation and land acquisition, and local officials estimate the cost of acquiring the remaining land at $1.2 billion.
That price tag is clearly beyond the reach of local coffers, so county officials will float a new idea at a meeting this week with state officials: ask the National Park Service to acquire the property.
The concept has not been accepted favorably by people like James Mattson, who describes himself on his blog as "a scientist turned property-rights litigator." He claims the value of the land in question is closer to $7 billion and is urging owners to either hold out for an eminent domain suit or to file their own lawsuit against the county and state.
It remains to be seen whether the National Park Service will be drawn into a very expensive and clearly contentious battle. There's no question that land and adjacent coastal waters with scenic and natural values, including several endangered species, are at stake. The larger question is whether the area involved meets the criteria for inclusion in the national park system—and whether the taxpayer can afford the tab.