Jul. 3--Protecting the Florida Keys from the future's stronger storms and rising seas involves retreating from the most dangerous spots. That process will be by choice, for now.
Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a $5.5 billion plan to keep the island chain functioning after a devastating storm. It involves strengthening U.S. 1 in six places, elevating 7,300 houses, floodproofing 3,800 buildings and buying and demolishing about 300 homes.
Buyouts aren't new for the Keys, which has more willing sellers for a state-run buyout plan than anywhere else in Florida. But if the Army Corps is paying for buyouts, it comes with a catch. If a homeowner targeted for a buyout won't sell willingly, Corps policy says the city or county has to use eminent domain to kick them out.
That was a no-go for leadership throughout the island chain.
Despite the region's dire need for cash to keep it dry in the face of rising seas, Monroe County said it won't go forward with the potential project if the Corps insists on mandatory buyouts. The county wrote a letter to Corps leadership asking for a waiver exempting them from the rule and making the buyouts voluntary.
"We are hopeful for a response ASAP, but I would expect it to take a few months at least," said Susan Layton, chief of Corps' regional planning and policy branch in Virginia, which is running the $3 million study behind the draft plan.
If the waiver isn't approved, Monroe wants to go with a version of the plan that elevates most of the 300 homes instead.
The draft plan calls for raising 7,300 homes on stilts, a familiar building technique in the Keys that lifts houses away from the worst of hurricane-induced storm surge, as well as the increasingly common "sunny day flooding" brought on by rising seas.
But not all houses can be protected by merely elevating them. The Corps identified around 300 homes that, even if raised 12 feet, would still face damage from potential future storm surge. The solution, it said, is to demolish those properties and never rebuild on the lot again.
About 95 of those homes would be in Key West, 84 in Marathon and 48 in unincorporated Monroe, according to a Corps presentation given in June. In Key Colony Beach -- population 803 -- the Corps estimates it would buy 56 homes.
City and county leaders are fine with buyouts, as long as the waiver to make them voluntary comes through.
"We have our fingers crossed," said Rhonda Haag, Monroe County's chief resilience officer. "That's a big hoop to jump through."
Although the switch from mandatory to voluntary buyouts is more popular with homeowners and elected officials, it could make it harder to avoid a dreaded effect known as "checkerboarding."
With mandatory buyouts, governments have a chance to plan how retreat happens, like when they can stop providing services or maintaining water pipes to an area. If buyouts aren't coordinated, holdout homeowners could end up marooned on a street, neighborhood -- or in the Keys, maybe a literal island.
"It costs the local government substantial money," said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware focused on managed retreat. "They still have to provide all the municipal services and all of the costs even if there's only one or two houses on that stretch of land."
This issue is particularly important in the Keys, as the region has grappled with the sky-high price of elevating roads to withstand the two feet of sea rise expected by 2060, which is enough to swamp most of the Keys twice a day, according to a NOAA study. Monroe has estimated about half of its 300 miles of roads are vulnerable to flooding in the next 20 years.
Clustering buyouts, like the Corps said it wants to, could make it easier for the Keys to decide which roads to maintain and which to abandon.
"If there's a group of them in an area where there's a proposed road elevation, we can take a look at whether that might mean that road elevation might not be needed," Haag said.
Another complication from switching to voluntary buyouts is less assistance for potential sellers.
Ashton Burgin, the project manager for the Keys study, said people selling their homes voluntarily aren't eligible for relocation money the way eminent domain sellers are. The exception is renters, who would receive money to rent a new place if their landlord sold the property.
The state-run buyout program the Keys is participating in "may" offer relocation money to eligible sellers, said Helene Wetherington, Monroe County's disaster recovery director.
That program, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, gave the Keys $20 million to buy storm-damaged homes vulnerable to future flooding. The Keys plans to purchase 62 homes with that money. Since the application period ended last year, the waiting list has grown from 10 to 24 interested sellers.
Cash to buy out 300 more houses is welcome in a small county struggling to even begin to do the math on how much it might cost to become resilient to storms and sea level rise. Last year, Monroe asked Florida for $150 million just to get started on buying out homes, elevating crucial buildings and raising roads.
In addition to buyouts and elevations, the Corps plan would cover the costs to floodproof more than 3,800 businesses and condominiums, including 47 pieces of "critical infrastructure," like fire stations, hospitals and water treatment plants.
It would also include installing structures called "rock revetments" along six fragile spots of U.S. 1, the sole road in and out of the Keys. Layton said the Corps chose a harder structure rather than a more natural solution, like a living shoreline of mangroves and coral reefs, because it would be difficult to get permits for anything that encroached into the protected waters in the Keys.
"There's a lot of potential federal dollars here to make the Keys more resilient," Haag said. "We don't have agencies knocking on our door to hand out money, and the Army Corps did. This is going to be very helpful if and when Congress approves the money for these projects."
If Congress does approve the plan, the Corps would pay 65 percent of the total cost and the cities and county would pay the other 35 percent.
An earlier version of the plan shown to Monroe County Commissioners in February pegged the cost at $3 billion and involved "thousands" of buyouts, Haag said. Now the Corps estimates that it only needs 300 buyouts, but the estimated costs have shot up to $5.5 billion.
Layton said the price change is partially related to the cost of elevating so many homes, and "it was just part of the process of getting more finite detailed information as we moved through the analysis."
The draft plan will likely continue to evolve for another year as residents and politicians weigh in and engineers refine the analysis. A final version is due in October 2021, and from there it's up to Congress to fund the plan.
The Corps is accepting public comment on the study's proposed solutions through August 10. Anyone can send an email to FloridaKeysCSRM@usace.army.mil or participate in a public meeting.
Public meetings are planned for July 8 from 1 to 3 p.m, July 13 from 5 to 7 p.m. Corps engineers will also hold virtual office hours on July 9 from 1 to 2 p.m. and on July 14 from 5 to 6 p.m.
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