For decades, height limits have been a third rail in development discussions in the Florida Keys — nobody wanted to go near them. But more frequent flooding, the prospect of sea level rise and higher insurance rates are all leading to one conclusion in the low-lying island chain — build up.
Key West voters agreed to raise height limits on the island by up to 4 feet back in 2014. Now Monroe County is considering a similar measure. That would apply in unincorporated parts of the county, like Key Largo and the Lower Keys.
A new or substantially improved home would be able to go up to 3 feet above the current limit if they're elevating above the base flood level. Existing homes could go up to an extra 5 feet.
"It gives them a little extra window for elevating, because a lot of those homes are already below their flood zone," said Mayte Santamaria, the county's senior director for planning and environmental resources. "So they need a foot or two to reach the flood zone and then have an opportunity to elevate up to 3 feet."
The county's not talking about high-rises. The maximum height under the new rules would be 40 feet. Santamaria said those few feet can make a big difference.
"It makes a difference in terms of having a foot of water in your home or a few inches — versus being protected altogether," she said. It can also make a big difference in the rates homeowners pay for flood insurance, especially as FEMA redraws its flood maps.
The Monroe County Commission is scheduling public hearings on the measure for Wednesday in Key Largo and next month in Marathon. If the commission approves, the state must still review any changes to the county's land-use plan, since the Keys are an Area of Critical State Concern. Santamaria said if the measure does go to the state, it will likely take effect late this year or next year.