New Bill Could Spell a Building Boom in the Florida Keys

Aerial view of Key West, FL, United States. Photo Credit: Nenad Basic/

A new bill introduced by a state lawmaker from Naples aims to create a building boom for the archipelago area of the state. An amendment slipped into a House bill this week seeks to extend the hurricane evacuation time from 24 hours to 30 hours. Local leaders that manage public safety and a key Monroe County lawmaker called it irresponsible to even think about cramming more people into an area where tidal flooding already lasts for months, not to mention an area that gets flooded easily due to rising sea levels.

This amendment to a bill making its way through the committee process is an attempt to avoid potentially billions of dollars in anticipated legal costs from a flood of expected lawsuits brought by frustrated property owners who won’t be able to build on their land in three years because of a 1972 law aimed at controlling future development.

“This is foolishness,” said Craig Fugate, Florida’s former director of emergency management and head of FEMA under President Barack Obama. “First of all, 24 hours is a fantasy anyway. That means everything works, nothing breaks, there are no crashes and everyone leaves when they’re supposed to.”

In 2017, Hurricane Irma left evacuating Keys residents stuck in hours of traffic on the sole two-lane highway connecting Key West to the Florida mainland. Dozens of residents found themselves stranded in Florida City and Homestead for days trying to get back to their homes in the Keys. Mobile homes and downstairs enclosures located in flood-prone areas were destroyed by the Category 4 storm.

Aerial drone image shows boats sunken after Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys. Photo: Felix Mizioznikov/

The good news for the Florida Keys is that they will be getting more than $20 million dollars in federal funds to buy out and rebuild homes ruined by Irma. This money will help County officials retreat to an area where rising seas make the newly built homes less vulnerable to damage from future hurricanes. This new change would help move people and buildings out of this already at-risk location to a safer one somewhere else in the state. The Keys is the only spot in Florida with such strict development guidelines. 

Development is supposed to hit a full stop by 2023, when the county runs out of development permits, known as Rate of Growth Ordinances (ROGOs).

The new legislation aiming to make this change could spell a building boom for the Florida Keys. Critics of this proposed bill say the area does not have the land or infrastructure to support this new plan. Safe evacuation from the area ahead of a large hurricane would be made more difficult with more development. 

“The amendment to House Bill 587 late Tuesday evening will clearly make living in the Florida Keys during hurricane season more dangerous than it already is,” Mark Songer, president of Florida Keys environmental group Last Stand, said. “We are looking for ways to prevent the amendment to this bill from becoming law.”

In anticipation of the approaching 2023 deadline, Monroe County legal staff helped introduce a bill last legislative session by state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo that would split the liability in these takings cases evenly between the state and county.

County Attorney Bob Shillinger last year explained that the bill is designed to waive the county’s liability by 50 percent. Shillinger stated there is an understanding between the state, counties and municipalities that there will be a 50/50 share of blame at the end of the case. The County will benefit financially as well if the state delays payments to the affected parties.

Raschein re-introduced the bill this session. House Republican leadership has said it will only support it if it contains a legal disclaimer that reduces the state’s risk, however. One way to do this would be to allow more people to develop their land, weakening the area of critical state concern designation in the process.

The Village of Islamorada council member and candidate for county commission Mike Forster said that although he sympathizes with property owners, he does not support delaying it.

“I get that if you own a property, you want to be able to build on it,” Forster said. “But, this has been around for a long time. This is what you’re getting yourself into if you buy in Monroe County.”