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Commission grapples with sea level rise costs

The Monroe County Commission on Wednesday discussed its biggest looming infrastructure issue — combating sea level rise.

But by the end of the special workshop, the commission and county staff were still stuck on the biggest problem in resolving the issue — a lack of money to pay for the projects.

Sea level rise mitigation projects in the Florida Keys are estimated to cost billions of dollars, and county officials have not been shy in saying they won’t be able to pay for every project and that projects chosen will depend on such factors as population, number of homes and whether a road is a hurricane evacuation route.

During Tuesday’s regular commission meeting, one consultant said his firm “targeted heavily-densely-populated area” when it was conducting a recent roadway vulnerability study.

“There is no doubt we are going to see major changes in the next 100 years,” Commissioner David Rice said. “We’re not going to get out of this without it costing us money. We can protect as much as we can. We cannot protect everything that is here.”

The meeting comes after months of complaints from Stillwright Point residents who have charged that the county is not moving fast enough to address rising waters in that area. The Key Largo neighborhood has experienced months of continual flooding since last year.

About a half dozen Stillwright Point residents spoke at Wednesday’s workshop and seemed very concerned about having to foot some of the bill for mitigation projects, as some estimates have property owners there paying as much as an extra $2,000 a year in assessments. On Tuesday, the County Commission discussed setting up special property taxing districts in each area to pay for the costs of the projects.

“I don’t know if everyone in my neighborhood can afford it,” said Stephanie Russo, who said she moved to Stillwright Point in 2018.

“None of us bought our homes knowing we lived in a flooded neighborhood,” fellow Stillwright Point resident Kim Sicora added. “Treat us like your favorite sister.”

They asked the county to possibly make the assessments countywide or to add an additional penny to local sales tax.

Newly seated Commissioner Mike Forster agreed that sea level rise is a “countywide issue” and mitigation should be funded countywide, likening it to how the county paid for central sewer installation.

County Chief Resiliency Officer Rhonda Haag told the commission and residents the county is going after every grant it can, but it is competing with much bigger communities in South Florida, where money goes further.

The county has started planning and working on several pilots projects in Key Largo and Big Pine Key, but work is being done as money comes available.

On Tuesday, county-contracted sea level rise experts and planners gave the county an overview of the preparation and work that has been done and what projects are scheduled for the future.

The presentation also included the most up-to-date sea level rise projections.

The median estimate for sea level rise in the Keys for 2040 is 10 inches, the intermediate rise is 17 inches and the highest is 23 inches. The median estimate for sea level rise for 2070 is 21 inches, the intermediate rise is 40 inches and the highest is 54 inches. The median estimate for sea level rise for 2120 is 40 inches, the intermediate rise is 92 inches and the highest is 136 inches.

Recently elected County Commissioner Eddie Martinez, a local land surveyor, questioned the estimates the county is using to project future sea level rise in the next 100 years, calling them “astronomical.”

However, Haag countered that she trusted the estimates from scientists, professors and other leading experts in the field.


KW Commission tightens up COVID rules
City officials to meet today to discuss new enforcement measures

COVID-19 dominated the Key West City Commission meeting Tuesday, with commissioners struggling to find effective ways to enforce existing emergency health orders to slow the soaring case count.

At the end of the four-hour meeting, commissioners agreed to create five zones where masks are required at all times, look into limiting capacity at local hotels, hire private security firms to help with enforcement, and limit the size of groups allowed at both private and public events.

The five mask-requirement zones will be Duval Street, the Key West Bight, Mallory Square during sunset, the Southernmost Point during the day and the Caroline Street commercial area.

In addition, city officials are seriously considering canceling public events from now into 2021, even those like the Seafood Festival, which were recently approved. The annual holiday parade has now been canceled. The regular menorah and Christmas tree lighting ceremonies are canceled, although the public menorah and tree will still be lit. And New Year’s Eve, where tens of thousands of people crowd the city, is terrifying city officials, who said they will reach out to the local bars that sponsor “drops” at midnight — including the famous shoe drop at Bourbon Street Pub — not to hold those events this year.

“We are going to have people arrive here at the worst possible time they could,” said Mayor Johnston. “We’ve got to have some collective courage to do some things in the short term. We are heading down the path right now to closure.”

Commissioners are scheduled to hold a special meeting at 9 a.m. today (Thursday) to finalize some of the new enforcement measures. The public meeting will be held at City Hall and people can attend in the socially-distanced chamber room or watch the meeting on the City’s website, Comcast Channel 77 and AT&T Channel 99, and Zoom.

But with all the urgency about how to protect both Key West residents and visitors, some officials acknowledged on Tuesday it has been a losing battle so far. The current case count in Key West is 1,382, including 17 new cases on Tuesday.

Almost every weekend, there are reports of crowds along Lower Duval and other popular tourist destinations, most not wearing a mask and often crammed shoulder to shoulder on the city’s narrow sidewalks. City Manager Greg Veliz and Police Chief Sean Brandenburg said on Tuesday it is almost impossible to clamp down on the violators with the current available manpower.

“I don’t want to say I don’t have an answer but there are masses of people,” Veliz said about the weekend crowds; crowds that are expected to grow during the upcoming holiday and winter high season.

And the city’s six code enforcement officers, who, along with five police officers, are tasked to walk the congested areas, handing out both free masks and citations, were all out sick last week. Veliz said the code officers stayed home either because they were positive for COVID-19 or had been exposed to colleagues who were positive. Most are back on the job now.

But Jim Young, code enforcement director, is home sick with the virus and visibly struggled to speak to commissioners when he Zoomed into Tuesday’s meeting.

“What I see is chaos…. especially on the weekends,” Young said when asked what he saw on city streets. “There are certain businesses that have chosen to ignore our ordinance.”

Young showed several recent photographs of restaurants including Jack Flats, Caroline’s Cafe, Fogarty’s and Waterfront Brewery where bartenders, wait staff and customers were not wearing masks, in violation of the city’s emergency order requiring masks to be worn except when seated while eating and drinking.

All of those establishments are owned by local restaurateur Joe Walsh, who appeared at Tuesday’s meeting — without wearing a mask as he spoke at the microphone, unlike the other speakers — to say he doesn’t believe masks are effective in stopping the virus. He pointed out that none of his five Key West restaurants have been closed due to COVID-19 thanks to regular wellness checks and immediate staff quarantine if they test positive or think they have been exposed.

“I employ one and a half percent of the population of Key West. And we do not have spread at the businesses,” Walsh said, adding, “We have a don’t ask, don’t tell mask policy. This works much better from a hospitality standpoint.”

In addition to Walsh’s restaurants, The Greene Room, Fat Tuesday’s and Pincher’s were also issued mask violation citations recently.

But just one week after backing down from a proposal put forth by Johnston to enact an overnight curfew starting at midnight for bars and restaurants, commissioners pleaded with local business owners to enforce mask ordinances inside of their establishments. Johnston said owners and managers committed to policing their own companies when Key West began to reopen in April. Since then, however, “that agreement has waned considerably,” she said.

“We need you to manage your own business, inside your business, so we can handle the streets,” Johnston told business owners and managers.

Commissioners also gave Veliz permission to spend whatever money necessary to hire additional code enforcement officers, including using private security firms.

“You’ve opened up the checkbook,” Veliz told commissioners. “We’ll do what we need to do.”

In other action at Tuesday’s commission meeting, four resolutions that would have created a new historic and commercial district in Bahama Village were postponed. Commissioners had been waiting for feedback from the Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee. However, commissioners moved to postpone the second and final vote to create the new district until their Dec. 2 meeting to allow time to write a new amendment that would give them the option to increase the number of new rental apartments set aside specifically for income-restricted affordable housing.


Man arrested after standoff with police

Monroe County sheriff’s deputies on Wednesday arrested a 31-year-old Key West man after standoff with police on Stock Island.

Deputies suspected the man was involved in an apparent domestic dispute and was arrested Wednesday morning after he refused to exit a trailer on Stock Island, Sheriff’s spokesman Adam Linhardt said.

Deputies arrested Dontrell Adrian Holloway on charges of possession of Oxycodone without a prescription and resisting arrest. There were three young children, ages 3, 4 and 6, in the trailer who were not harmed, Linhardt said.

The incident occurred near the corner of 5th Avenue and 5th Street at approximately 1:53 a.m. after a taxi driver dropped off a 27-year-old female. The taxi driver waited for the female to return to pay him when he reportedly heard a loud commotion inside the trailer as did another reporting person. The taxi driver also reported hearing possible gunfire, Linhardt said.

Deputies responded to the trailer. A man, later identified as Holloway, barricaded himself inside and refused to exit, Linhardt said.

The Sheriff’s Office SWAT Team, Hostage Negotiators, Key West Police, Florida Highway Patrol and U.S. Border Patrol all responded to the trailer.

Holloway finally exited the trailer at 6:18 a.m. without incident. Two Oxycodone pills were found in his possession. There were no firearms found, Linhardt said.

The female who arrived in the taxi was not found and apparently left prior to law enforcement arrival, Linhardt said. The Department of Children and Families was notified regarding the children. Holloway was taken to the Monroe County Detention Center on Stock Island.


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