A Florida Keys National Park? Good Conservation or Florida Bail-out?

Florida's southern keys. NPS photo.

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.

Comments

Ooof, a tough issue. Of course, I'm sure no one in Florida is trying to profit off a real estate scheme. That's soooo unlike South Floridians :dripping with overwhelming sarcasm:.

Realistically, not many of these islands can sustain much development. That's just a simple fact. Not that there aren't Americans living in unsustainable places....

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My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com

Maybe, the area is question should be bought by the BLM and/or the State.

I am the James Mattson you refer to above, and I disagree with the notion that the state and local governments are trying to turn the Florida Keys into a National Park. Having lived in the Keys for the past 25 years, and practiced land use law the entire time, it is my opinion that we are experiencing the common problem of "homevoters" trying to prevent new arrivals in the community. It has nothing to do with deer, rats, mice, and bunnies. It is all about stopping growth, and has been that way since the 1992 adoption of a rate-of-development ordinance, adopted on a specious theory that the Keys could not evacuate in a timely manner when threatened with hurricane-force winds. The County Commission actually forced the Florida DOT to DROP a plan -- already funded -- that would have cured the imaginary "deficiency" by 2000. This they accomplished by incorporating a provision in the 1996 Comprehensive Plan that prohibited the widening of US-1, the only access/exit highway through the Keys. We are anxiously awaiting the completion of these road improvements, although last week the idiots on our County Commission adopted a resolution demanding that DOT halt its current program to build a third outbound traffic lane on Key Largo -- as recommended by DOT consultants in 2001 -- as one of the major components in reaching the imaginary 1992 clearance time objective.

Only after the tyrannical, no-growth, majority realized that highways could be improved, did this "interest" in endangered species develop. Now, it's "save the animals" in public, but "save my property value" in reality. Monroe County is the only Florida County that has seen a drop in population over the past two decades. The reason is simple, rate-of-development restrictions that could not have been implemented in the more populous (or less property-rich) counties. Monroe County has the lowest property tax rate of all the counties in Florida, because it has the highest property tax assessments. We are "richer" (property-wise) than even Palm Beach or Collier Counties.

The Keys are not the next Everglades National Park. The Keys are more like Cape Cod, the Colorado ski villages, and Santa Barbara, California, than Yosemite National Park. Our problem is simply one of an entrenched and vocal majority, that regularly elects a basket of compliant County Commissioners, all of whom would prefer that the bridges be blown up and nobody else be allowed to relocate to the Florida Keys. So far, these people have been successful in keeping the population down. But now they are facing very substantial increases in their property taxes to pay for the remaining vacant land. So, why not, they float the absurd notion of turning every other lot in the Florida Keys (not their homes, of course) into a National Park. Give me a break!