Roiled Tropical Waters : Emotions Running High Over Land-Use Plan in Florida Keys
Four decades ago, Betty Brothers bought a bug-infested swamp between the Atlantic Ocean and U.S. Route 1 where she set up camp, cooked over an open fire, and went to work with dynamite.
“It was a big swamp. It was acreage,” said the 69-year-old real-estate agent, whose pet bottlenose dolphin Suwa swims in a gated lagoon next to the house that stands on the site today. “It was all under water, so we camped, dynamited and filled it.”
Brothers knows she wouldn’t be allowed to build her dream house today. Progress has brought federal dredge-and-fill laws, the Clean Water Act, and a state-mandated land-use plan that has agitated just about everyone on the 112-mile island chain ending at Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States.
Could Face Federal Charges
“If I went with a 5-gallon bucket of sand or rocks and dumped it in my bay bottom, what do you suppose could happen to me?” the white-haired Brothers asked with a chuckle. Technically, she could face federal charges.
The Keys were an inspiration to Ernest Hemingway and meant “Margaritaville” to songster Jimmy Buffett. They are home to endangered species from the American crocodile to Key deer. They function as a launching point to the only living coral reef in the continental United States with its world-class sport fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling.
The natives, a fiercely independent lot who call themselves Conchs, organized a tongue-in-cheek secession move in the 1970s to establish the Conch Republic. Many of them were only half kidding.
The Monroe County land-use plan, which went into effect in 1986, is at the center of a dispute between pro-development and preservation forces and has strained relations between the county and the state. Ironically, it has also spurred a construction boom.
“They’ve got more problems per square inch than any people I’ve run into,” said Rep. Dante B. Fascell of Miami, noting problems with the water supply, sewage disposal and waste management on the skinny island chain.
“Are you going to allow unrestricted housing and development? The county, it seems to me, is beginning to say no. There’s a greater sensitivity now among the people making the decisions that they want to preserve what’s there.”
But County Commissioner John Stormont, often the minority of one on development votes, charges that “under growth management, we have not managed growth.”
“The Keys historically has never been able to take care of itself,” he said. “It adopted strong regulations and then ignored them.”
Even with the land-use plan in place, the value of new construction was up 59% for the nine months ending in June, compared to the same period last year, Stormont said.
“If they had never said we’re going to have all this management, you would have gone 15 years without seeing the spurt of development we’ve had in the last two years,” said Brothers, who moved from Ohio in 1946.
County planning director Donald Craig acknowledged that Key Largo has seen a spate of commercial and hotel development, Big Pine Key has developed rapidly, and Big Coppitt Key is becoming a bedroom community for Key West.
Ed Swift, a county commissioner when the land-use plan was adopted in September, 1986, noted that initial planning would have allowed 70,000 new housing units in the county of 74,500 people, but the plan reduced that to 16,000 units by the year 2020. That means the population could grow by roughly 60%.
“It’s a very emotional issue,” said Swift, a native of St. Louis who has become a leading Key West businessman.
Consider these recent events:
- A federal jury ruled in July that a Key West developer illegally filled 2.7 acres of wetlands to build townhouses.
- The county wants to pave a dirt road parallel to U.S. 1 on Big Pine Key, the refuge for Key deer, to improve local access between residential areas and the business district, but the state objects.
- Port Bougainville, once envisioned as the largest resort between Miami and Key West, went into bankruptcy and the state has pledged to spend $23 million on the North Key Largo site, property that environmentalists consider a natural extension of the Everglades.
‘A Nation Unto Itself’
“Forty years ago, you could do anything you pleased anywhere,” said Key Largo attorney Jim Mattson, one of four defense attorneys in the federal dredge trial. “The state of Florida didn’t even have any regulatory role until the early ‘70s. This was a nation unto itself down here.”
Mattson, a transplant from Washington, D.C., estimates that he has 15 to 20 clients with $20 million worth of property challenging land-use restrictions as illegal condemnations.
One thorny issue is the contiguous lot rule, which bars a person who owns two adjacent residential parcels from building on both. One house is the limit for the two parcels.
“We’re looking at a lot of lawsuits for Christmas presents for Monroe County,” Mattson said.
Meanwhile, the county is fighting state efforts to supervise growth control.
Tom Pelham, director of the state Department of Community Affairs, which administers the land-use plan, is a favorite target.
“The only difference between Tom Pelham and Nero is Nero had a fiddle,” said retiring County Atty. Lucien Proby, a Mississippian who bought his first Keys property in 1970. “Mr. Pelham has for some reason taken it upon himself to assume that his position as director of the DCA has given him imperial rights over Monroe County.”
Pelham dismisses the state-county battles as mostly political saber-rattling.
“Everyone has to recognize that the Keys have very natural limitations on the amount of development that can be accommodated,” he said. “There is only one Keys. It’s something that should be protected and preserved, and the state has deemed it a resource of state significance.”
Challenges in Court
But county commissioners in August authorized attorney David Paul Horan to file suit challenging what the county contends is the state’s administrative veto authority over land-use changes.
“This plan completely and arbitrarily rezoned the entire county, and many people suffered because of it,” said county Mayor Gene Lytton, who was elected to the county commission after the land-use plan was passed. He now votes with the majority as part of what environmentalists call the Concrete Coalition.
“Monroe County likes to consider itself beyond Tallahassee’s control,” said former County Commissioner Alison Fahrer, who was defeated in her reelection bid when Lytton was elected two years ago. “I think this place can become kind of a scary place for the people who like to live like outlaws and pollute their water.”
Gilbert Voss, a University of Miami biological oceanographer and an expert on the Keys’ reefs, has written a survey for the Friends of the Everglades.
“Wherever reefs occur, the reefs are deteriorating,” Voss concluded in the survey. “The worst thing that can happen to a virgin coral reef today is to tell about it in a tour magazine or diving periodical.”
Cullen Chambers, a former state park ranger and now director of Key West’s Lighthouse Museum, voiced a common concern.
“People were attracted to Key West because it is a bit of the Caribbean with the protection of the United States,” he said. “We virtually destroy the very thing that brought people here to begin with. It’s almost a cliche, but it’s true.”
Charles Lee, senior vice president of the Florida Audubon Society, said he has “absolutely no faith” in Monroe County government.
“They are determined to make it as easy as they can to let developers do pretty much whatever they want,” he said. “There’s always going to have to be a state presence to make sure the resources are not frittered away.”
Ed Kloski, a contractor on the county planning commission, still sees trouble ahead.
“We haven’t grown up enough,” he said. “One of the county planners told me we’re going to take Monroe County kicking and screaming into the 20th Century. The problem is, we’re coming from the 17th Century.”