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3/10/04 - Sun Sentinel

Plan would open way for increased housing in Keys

By David Fleshler

TALLAHASSEE · The Florida Keys will see a big increase in home building over the next few years under a proposal Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet endorsed Tuesday.

Over the objections of environmentalists, the governor and Cabinet voted to take steps toward increasing the number of building permits awarded in Monroe County and the city of Marathon. As part of the plan, the state and local governments would spend up to $410 million to buy and protect undeveloped land, construct sewer systems and make other environmental improvements.

The Keys' tropical hammocks harbor endangered plants, birds, butterflies and mammals. Off shore is the third-longest coral reef in the world. Because of the sensitivity of their ecosystem, the Keys have been under strict state supervision for years. The state monitors water pollution, habitat protection, development and hurricane evacuation planning. The Keys particularly need new sewer systems because the septic tanks are blamed for beach closures and the decline of the reefs.

The deal calls for an increase in annual building permits from 182 to 227, with 77 of those units required to be affordable housing. In a few months, the plan is expected to come back for final approval to the governor and Cabinet, which consists of Attorney General Charlie Crist, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher.

Bush said he was particularly concerned about a shortage of housing for nurses, teachers and other essential workers.

"Folks that would provide services in the Keys just can't afford to live there," he said.

Marathon City Manager Scott Janke said the deal would make it easier for his citizens to invest in an expensive water-treatment system to protect the Keys' ecosystem.

"It's fair and equitable," he said. "It helps the city of Marathon commit $60 million to build a sewer system to help clean up the Keys."

But environmentalists said the deal would still allow more development than the islands could handle.

Eric Draper, a lobbyist for the Florida Audubon Society, said that losing even tiny parcels of land to home-building could make it more difficult for migrating birds.

"The Florida Keys are part of the flyway for migratory birds," he said. "It's the first place migrating birds stop from South to North America. You take that out and you put at risk of extinction birds like the white-crowned pigeon."

Richard Grosso, attorney for World Wildlife Fund and other groups, denounced the deal as a smoke screen that ignored other, more environmentally sensitive ways of dealing with the housing shortage.

"The state made a promise to the ecosystem six years ago that the ecosystem would be protected," he said. "And the state broke that promise today."

The plan must come back to the governor and Cabinet for final approval.

David Fleshler can be reached at or 850-224-6214