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Monroe County COVID-19 spike prompts reminder

A recent spike in COVID-19 numbers in Monroe County has prompted local health department and county officials to remind residents to not let down their guard down when it comes to wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing.

As of Tuesday, there have been 2,214 reported cases in the county, including 2,168 residents, according to the Florida Department of Health. State-wide, there have been a total of 786,311 reported cases of the coronavirus, with 204 deaths.

Following a two-week period with a 7% positive test rate, Tuesday’s data from the state showed a slightly lower 6.28% rate. A 5% positivity rate or less is considered desirable.

The local health department reported 15 new cases on Tuesday, in addition to 48 cases over the weekend, although no new fatalities were noted as the total remained at 25.

Five people remained hospitalized in the Lower Keys with COVID-19.

Key West continued to lead the Keys in total positive cases with 1,028 as of Tuesday, followed by Key Largo with 288 and Marathon with 227.

Tavernier has reported 153, while Islamorada noted 56, Stock Island 54, Summerland Key 46 and Big Pine Key 39. Key Colony Beach has reported 11, Little Torch and Cudjoe Key had six each, Sugarloaf and Long Key five each, Ramrod Key four, with Rockland Key, Big Torch, Marathon Shores and Duck Key all reporting a single case.

“We are going into season and we are going to see a spike in numbers,” local health department administrator Bob Eadie said recently. “I cannot emphasize enough the importance to limit gatherings especially ones where masks are not used.”

In an abundance of caution, the Monroe County Commission meeting on Oct. 21 was moved from a hybrid meeting to virtual only. Other local governments are considering the same precautions.

Monroe County still requires facial coverings to be worn in all businesses with a few exceptions such as while sitting in a restaurant or bar to eat or drink or working out in a gym. Information on the facial covering requirements can be found at http://www.monroecountyem.com/covid19. While businesses may operate at 100% capacity, social distancing by maintaining a 6-foot separation between parties is still required.

Masks are required outdoors when social distancing cannot be maintained.


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HELPING HISTORY
Historic Fort Jefferson lighthouse to undergo $4.5M restoration

The 144-year old Tortugas Harbor Lighthouse on historic Fort Jefferson is about to get a facelift.

Dry Tortugas National Park kicked off the $4.5 million project this month to restore and preserve the deteriorating lighthouse for the next 100-plus years.

“The Tortugas Harbor Lighthouse is an iconic symbol of Dry Tortugas National Park. While partial repairs to the lighthouse have occurred over the past 40 years, it has never received this kind of comprehensive preservation,” South Florida Parks and Preserve Superintendent Pedro Ramos said. “The National Park Service is committed to preserving this important piece of our American story.”

The iron-plated lighthouse has been exposed to the elements and the effects of salty ocean air since its construction in 1876. Over time, the iron has corroded, leading to significant deterioration in many areas particularly around its base, Dry Tortugas Park Manager Glenn Simpson said.

“The Preserve Tortugas Harbor Lighthouse project will use money generated from park entrance fees to ensure that future generations will be able to experience this part of our national heritage,” Simpson said. “The National Park Service has overseen decades of various repairs, including stabilizing and strengthening, and we’re excited to finally see this comprehensive restoration work being done.”

The three-phase Preserve Tortugas Harbor Lighthouse Project is expected to take about a year and visitors will be able to watch the first phase over the coming month.

A restoration crew from Stone and Lime, Inc. of Massachusetts will first disassemble the 37-foot iron lighthouse structure piece-by-piece and transport the components from Garden Key to mainland Florida by ship, Simpson said.

Metal conservation and repair of the lighthouse structure will then commence at the conservation facilities of subcontractor Robinson Iron in Alexander City, Alabama.

Finally, reassembly of the lighthouse will take place in its original location at the Civil War-era fort. Subcontractor Jablonski Building Conservation will oversee the historic preservation requirements of the project.

The work comes after the National Park Service has spent two decades stabilizing and retrofitting the historic fort. The National Park Service has several other projects at the fort in the planning stages, including stabilizing and preserving the 16 trapezoidal magazines atop the fort and stabilizing the old officers quarters, Simpson said.

Fort Jefferson, located at the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, is one of the largest brick structures in the Western Hemisphere and has a rich maritime heritage.

The shallow sand banks and coral reefs have made navigation aids, like the fort’s lighthouse, critical for safe passage around the islands before the advent of GPS. Even so, many ships succumbed to the tricky waters and contributed to the large concentration of shipwrecks in the park. Although deactivated in 1921, the Tortugas Harbor Lighthouse and other historical aids to navigation are important to telling the histories of places like Dry Tortugas National Park.

People can learn more about the Tortugas Harbor Lighthouse at www.nps.gov/drto/learn/historyculture/lighthouses.htm.

tohara@keysnews.com


Dry Tortugas National Park recently kicked off a $4.5 million project to restore and preserve the deteriorating Tortugas Harbor Lighthouse at historic Fort Jefferson.


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Candidates, planner disagree on how TDR ordinance's effect on development

The Village of Islamorada is debating the meaning and effect of Ordinance 2020-02, which has been approved by the state Department of Economic Opportunity. Whether the result is overdevelopment, or a way to attempt planned growth and avert takings claims when owners of vacant property are no longer able to build due to a lack of permits, remains to be seen.

Among the goals of the ordinance stated July 16, 2020, are to “clarify, define and expand the flexibility of the transfer of off-site residential density pursuant to Division 12 Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs); these amendments have the potential to produce a positive impact on the preservation and future development of … Islamorada; these amendments may interest additional applicants in applying for TDRs; [and] have the ability to increase the Village’s tax base through new appraisals and increased taxable values generally associated with future development.”

According to Islamorada’s Planning Director Ty Harris, “The ordinance does not ‘remove major restrictions’ [as has been written in campaign advertisements, he said] on TDRs; it does just the opposite by adding fundamental definitions, restrictions and procedures to help clarify the off-site residential density process. … The goal is to encourage redevelopment and not tear down greenspace.”

“The inescapable fact is we are a few short months from residential buildout. … [I]f you take the number of remaining residential allocations left [in] the village and assume they are used up, you will have approximately 700 buildable residential lots that cannot be used for single-family home sites. There are several alternatives to reduce the potential liability the village will be facing for ‘takings’ claims.”

Harris continued: “Some of those strategies will require difficult decisions as to property rights and may include zoning changes. Other strategies are legislative. The village has been working on legislative strategies for the past several years, with limited success. Experience should tell you that the village is going to need to figure this out independent of the State of Florida. There are no white knights coming in 2023 to save us.”

An example of legislative strategies included the county and municipalities jointly asking the state to equally split the potential costs of having to buy out Keys property owners due to growth restrictions imposed by the state. The state demurred.

Another item causing concern in Ordinance 2020-02 was removing the word “vacant” from Section 30-503(1) to reflect language that was in that code section prior to the adoption of Ordinance 2014-11. Harris said, “As originally stated, [this was] to allow the transfer of density on any eligible residential receiver site whether it is vacant or occupied, because only allowing the transfer of density on vacant properties, as Ordinance 2014-11 did, contradicted multiple objectives and policies in the Comprehensive Plan.” He delineated six examples. He said the result of including “vacant lots” phraseology in 2014 led to only one application utilizing the village TDR ordinance in six years.

Harris further stated a couple Comprehensive Plan policies were affected and there are no provisions in either the land development code or Comprehensive Plan for the transfer of development rights that allows for submerged lands to be calculated as density, intensity (floor area ratio), buildable area or as net upland area, so that those concerned about conservation should be reassured.

“Wetlands require a 100% open space requirement for undisturbed wetlands, and [require] a 50-foot buffer around freshwater resources. No fill or structures shall be permitted in mangrove wetlands except for elevated, pile-supported walkways, docks, observation platforms, piers and utility pilings. … Submerged lands, salt ponds, freshwater ponds and mangroves shall not be assigned any density or intensity.”

That very last sentence is key, said Village Candidate for Seat 2 Mark Gregg. “You can’t trump the Comp Plan with land development regulations.” He said the current controversy is due to some people reading the definitions in the revised ordinance and misunderstanding them or taking them out of context.

Candidate for Seat 2 Cheryl Meads said she has it on good authority that while previously submerged lands and tidal mangroves were excluded from those definitions — and thus they were not calculated in the acreage of a property, the ordinance has changed so that it means property is considered larger than it has been historically. She gave examples of the resulting problems. If a property had 1 acre of submerged land and 1 acre of upland, it was previously considered a 1-acre property. Now, it is a 2-acre property, she said. This could result in more development being placed on the same property because it is larger, and it could increase the amount of residential development (density) or commercial development (intensity) for a piece of property.

Additionally, if one dwelling unit per acre is allowed on a particular property, and that property is now considered 2 acres instead of 1 acre, two dwelling units would be allowed instead of one.

The ordinance also changed the focus on building on vacant, residential lots, Meads said. “Instead of requiring residential TDRs to be sent to empty lots, and decreasing the amount of future takings claims, TDRs can go to almost any residential or mixed-use property, whether developed or not.

“Coupled with the expansion of ‘lot area,’ the property may have increased residential density, and can now seek additional residential units.”

Meads said these residential units could metamorphose into “multimillion-dollar weekly vacation rental resorts.” So, a few developers make lots of money while village residents are on the hook for purchasing vacant lands that can’t be built upon, Meads said.

She said, meanwhile, some appointees on the Local Planning Agency and the Village Council were telling village residents their decision-making aimed to limit taking decisions against the village. “There’s 700 plats of land we’ll have to buy.” If elected, she has a plan to ask Tallahassee to use its geographic information system to help the village determine how many of those [lots] are environmentally sensitive and could not be built upon to better assess the number of potential takings claims.

Meads’ opponent, Gregg, has a TDR/density plan of his own. According to his campaign website, “The village will soon exhaust all of its single-family building permit allocations granted by the [s]tate … probably in early 2023. When this ‘buildout’ condition occurs, owners of more than 600 buildable vacant lots could make a legal claim against the village for monetary damages that could exceed several hundred million dollars. I want to make sure that those owners of vacant properties who are denied reasonable use of their property are treated fairly on their claims without imposing a catastrophic financial burden on the village government and taxpayers. In my view, all of the responsibility and liability for these claims should rest with Monroe County and the State of Florida for creating all of the regulations at issue long before the Village incorporated in 1997.”

After Gregg shared the history of how the county and Islamorada has evolved to the current situation, he said, “We are way over-developed. But, people have constitutional rights. The trick is how to balance that.” He was on council when the first set of Land Development Regulations and the Comprehensive Plan were being developed. He said the latter was called the 2020 Plan because it aimed to look 20 years in the future. And that’s where we are right now. “We’re down to our last permits. There are no more.”

The Legislature designated the Florida Keys (Monroe County and its municipalities) and the City of Key West as Areas of Critical State Concern in 1975 due to the area’s environmental sensitivity and mounting development pressures. Gregg said technically Islamorada has been in the redevelopment stage since its inception. “The TDR ordinance’s original intent was to direct permits to sites where development was more desirable and thus leave sparsely developed areas and pocket woods within our neighborhoods and village. TDRs protect what we want to protect and steer development to where we want it to go, and the marketplace — not the taxpayer — pays for that.”

jzima@keysnews.com


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Prescribed burns set for November in wildlife refuges

It’s that time of the year when familiar smells fill the air: Pumpkin spice, holiday baking and cooking ... and smoke from prescribed burns.

The Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex plans to conduct prescribed burns on Big Pine Key sometime during the first two weeks of November, weather permitting, according to officials there.

Prescribed burns in the Florida Keys refuges are implemented by a highly qualified and trained staff of interagency professional fire specialists, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Firefighters are brought in from the National Park Service, the state and U.S. Forest Services and Monroe County to assist.

According to Brian Pippen, Burn Boss trainee for the upcoming burns, the FWS is trying to doing everything possible to alert the public ahead of time, with news releases to the local media, social media and with electronic road signs on local roadways.

The exact dates of the prescribed burns are undetermined, but Pippen said they will be decided approximately 72 hours in advance, depending if weather conditions meet parameters. Pippen said, ideally, officials want humidity above 50% and 20-foot winds at 12 mph. Fuel moisture is another important parameter being monitored, he said.

“If it’s going to be too hot, it’s going to be too dry or, if it’s going to be too windy, then we won’t do the burn and we’ll save it for another day,” Pippen said.

The plan is to burn in specific areas for six to eight hours starting late afternoon and extending into the evening hours. This is the best time, Pippen said, when humidity is higher and temperatures are lower, which allows moderation of fire behavior. The burn area measures 115 acres and is similar in size to last year’s prescribed burn.

There is a lot of planning that goes into these prescribed burns to ensure they are successful, Pippen said. Everything from the weather to the time of the year is taken into consideration. Pippen said this is the best time of the year because it’s the end of rainy season and as close to a dormant season as possible.

In his role, Pippen works to ensure enough people will be there to assist, and he also is in contact with the National Weather Service to ensure weather conditions are appropriate. He will meet with refuge managers to see if they need help with notifying the public and, on the day of the operation, he assists the person in charge of the entire operation.

Pippen, who was a part of the prescribed burn last year, said outside of a couple of minor complaints from locals about smoke and the impact on the wildlife and habitat, everything went well.

Last year’s burn area focused on northern Big Pine Key, north and west of Blue Hole along Key Deer Boulevard.

Prescribed burns are important for the continued survival of local species, such as the federally endangered Key deer, the Bartram’s hairstreak butterfly and the butterfly’s host plant, pineland croton, which has evolved to be dependent upon fire.

Pippen said prescribed burns are also important for the residents who live in the area.

“We’re doing this to minimize the hazardous fuel buildup that’s there. I think it was 2018 when they had the 75-acre wildfire and we lost a home in a wildfire down there on Big Pine Key. This burn will definitely help mitigate that risk in the future,” Pippen said.

Community updates will be announced over the next few weeks on the refuge’s website and Facebook page and via roadside advisory signs. Maps of proposed prescribed burn units will be posted in the near future on Florida Keys Refuges Facebook (FloridaKeysRefuges) and website http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/.

dkelly@keysnews.com