Monroe County Land Authority is always looking for ways to create affordable housing

Christine Hurley, executive director of the Monroe County Land Authority joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about what’s been going on in the county. 

The county did fairly well through Hurricane Idalia. 

Hurley said, “Our neighborhood looks great. We had a couple trees go down, but we’re working on getting those backup. Super lucky compared to the rest of the folks in the state.”

An inventory is currently ongoing to assess the suitability for affordable housing. 

Hurley said, “The legislature passed a law that said not only do counties have to evaluate their real estate holdings, to determine whether there are lands that they owned that could be appropriate for affordable housing, but now they added that special districts, which is what the land authority is, has to do that same type of evaluation. So coming up September 20, on our agenda, we will have that evaluation.”

The land authority owns more than 2,700 parcels at the moment. 

Hurley said, “That’s always changing. Basically, it was good news when we went through the evaluation and the lands that we had acquired for affordable housing, obviously scored out to be appropriate for affordable housing. But the other thing that doing the inventory kind of did for me and our organization is really to reexamine everything we own and look at the policies that protect that land for it to stay in conservation. The county has so many comprehensive plan policies that protect what we buy. It was just a really good exercise to go through to show that everything we’ve been doing has been in line with those policies.”

Sometimes the land does fall outside of the conservation guidelines. 

Hurley said, “We’ve been in existence since the 80s. So land changes, especially when hurricanes come through, or people do things on either side of what you own. So in reality, we always are checking to see the conditions of the land and take care of it. We have a whole crew who maintains all of our holdings. You just never know what the conditions are and what has changed. So we’re happy to report that everything is in order, it seems. So that’s good.”

The land authority is also looking to partner with Islamorada and Marathon. 

Hurley said, “We’ve talked before about the ROGO units and the potential build out of the Keys. We know that there are way more privately owned properties and what each local government has in its ROGO or BPAS inventory. So the state right now is evaluating hurricane evacuation again, and they will be telling us whether or not we get any new permits. As part of that each local government has really started stepping up their efforts and review of what they have in their jurisdictions that could be purchased.”

About two years ago, the land authority started working with Marathon on possible purchases in Grassy Key. 

Hurley said, “Then recently, Islamorada contacted us and we’ve been working with them evaluating some of the parcels that are for sale, that are privately held, and whether or not we would be a good fit to purchase those for conservation. So we all focus on land that is already in the state of Florida, Florida Forever Program because if the land authority buys that, we pre-acquire it and then we can resell it back to the state as conservation land and that keeps our cash flow going. We’re not a huge organization with a ton of money, and land is expensive. So some of the properties that each local government wants to purchase is not only expensive, but the sellers really want more than appraised value. We’re getting to the point now where our purchases are harder and those local governments may be willing to provide some funding towards the acquisition so that we can buy it. Then we might get part of our money back by reselling it to the state. So we’re going to be talking to Islamorada and Marathon in the near future about that, and do they think it’s a good idea? In reality, especially when you look at Islamorada and Marathon and how they’ve gotten pretty built out over the past couple decades, the pieces that are left are pretty important to save at this point. I hope, at least that the policy makers will think that it might be a good idea or a good effort.”

Could traffic count and traffic flow possibly create more supply of land if development is curtailed? 

Hurley said, “That is the million dollar question, isn’t it? So, honestly, over the past couple of years, the decreasing number that are available to folks, in my opinion, and just based on the business that we’ve been able to conduct, that limitation has pushed some people into being willing sellers. So I do think every time development pressure, or expense is added to someone’s potential development opportunity, they all start evaluating do I really want to even proceed with trying to build out this property? The traffic stuff that is happening is a big deal, because it will add expense to anyone who wants to build. So that’s going to be part of their consideration. Now what the county is going to do with the traffic study is yet to be seen. It’s coming up, obviously, for discussion soon on their agenda by the planning department. But every time there’s a change, or some sort of, I’ll call it a challenge for development down here, I do think we get more willing sellers. So that’s actually really our role is to be the intermediary between the private owners of property and the local government who regulate what they can do with that property. We look forward to working with people and we always offer a fair price, we get an appraisals and we think there could be an opening coming up soon in that regard. We’ll see what happens.”

The development and possible impacts or curtailment of development can raise the cost to a landowner. 

Hurley explained, “With the new traffic results, anyone who wants to develop anything more than a single family home now, with the level of service of US 1 falling below level of service C, the current comp plan, and the current code says they can only get a permit to build something, if they mitigate the increased traffic that development would cause. What does that mean? Well, what it means is they have to propose an improvement either to the road or a turn lane or alternative traffic, like bike pass, bus stop, anything that they can do that the county’s traffic consultant agrees, would help alleviate traffic based on the numbers of travelers that their development would produce. Then they pay for that as part of their development approval. So If yesterday I could build a 3,000 square foot retail space, without traffic mitigation, and now tomorrow, or when this gets adopted, I want to build that same development, then I have to come up with whatever improvement I can, that would help take the traffic I’m creating off the road and make it better for the citizens that travel up and down.”

The land authority works with Habitat for Humanity on affordable housing projects. 

Hurley said, “It’s been still such a challenge to find vacant land owners that we can purchase property from and then convey it, so habitat in the Upper Keys can use it. We keep running into land up in the Upper Keys that already has protected habitats. We have very strict rules that we can’t spend land authority money on that type of property for affordable housing development. So we’re really in search of some property in the Upper Keys that doesn’t have habitat on it hammock wetland species, things that would need to be basically cleared to develop for the Upper Keys habitat. The other thing we’ve been working with Key West on their big project, the 3.2 acre project, had a meeting with the city manager recently on that. It’s moving forward. We haven’t settled the issue of homeownership and income qualifications based on the law that we are under. So we are going to propose an amendment to our law in this next session, that would allow homeownership to be less stringent, as far as once you buy the house, if you’re income qualified, we’re not going to ever ask you your income again, even though we will have a deed restriction on that property. But it then has to be resold to an income qualified family. So we’re working on that. That’s a big deal for us.”

That would take legislative action.