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Keys law aims to slow gentrification

Worried that working waterfront is rapidly disappearing in the Florida Keys, the Monroe County Commission has adopted a 270-day moratorium on tearing down marinas, boatyards and fish- houses to make way for other, more profitable waterfront development.

The moratorium gives the county breathing room to develop and adopt a marine management plan by Dec. 31, said Richard Jones, Monroe’s marine resources planner. The plan — among other things — aims to protect marinas, boatyards and fishhouses from being gobbled up by condominiums, gated communities and other high-end private uses that take waterfront out of public use. Loss of those facilities jeopardizes both commercial fishing and recreational boating, fishing and diving — traditional linchpins of the Florida Keys economy.

“The boatyards in particular are key in this domino effect,” Jones said. “Once the boatyards close, there’s no place to get a boat worked on.”

So people move their boats elsewhere or sell them.

The marine management plan is expected to offer some strategies for preserving working waterfront: public/

private partnerships in building new marinas and boatyards; tax incentives and abatements to encourage property owners to keep waterfront in traditional uses; and earmarking public money to buy development rights of marinas, boatyards or fishhouses so they aren’t converted to other uses.

Jones said changes in land development regulations and/or the county’s comprehensive plan to prevent property owners from taking working waterfront out of water-dependent uses could be the most controversial proposals when they come before the commission.

“You’ve got to find a just and fair balance between preservation and infringing on people’s property rights,” he said.

The South Florida Regional Planning Council and Florida Atlantic University’s Catanese Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions are working jointly to develop the marine management plan.

County commissioners adopted the moratorium July 20 by a unanimous5-0 vote — a surprise to Bruce Popham, owner of the keys’ Marathon Boatyard and a driving force behind the moratorium.

Popham said keys boating, fishing and diving are at risk because docks, marinas and boatyards are giving way to condos and gated communities.

“There are about a million registered boats in Florida — one for every 18 people,” Popham said. Of those boats, 25,000 are in the Keys — one for every three people there. Every year Florida draws 250,000 to 400,000 visiting cruisers, many of whom wind up in the Keys. The Keys’ commercial fishing industry is the state’s largest — its charter and party boat fleet one of the nation’s biggest, he said.

“When you start closing off working waterfront and closing boatyards that serve all these people, where do you go to fix your boat?” he asked. Where do you go to dock your boat? Store your fish traps? “You have to make reservations a year in advance to make sure you have a dock to put your boat,” he said. “It was getting to a critical point, in my opinion, and the county commission saw that and wanted this.”

Popham said he suspects one long-term solution to loss of working waterfront is to allow mixed uses — residential development on the uplands with docks and boatyard facilities along the water.

One major goal of the management plan is to inventory existing waterfront and identify which parts are best suited for water-dependent uses for the foreseeable future. He expects the study to open up waterfront for new dockage and marine facilities.

The moratorium “tells you this community is concerned,” he said. “We all recognize there’s a problem. We just don’t know what to do about it — but we’ve got to do something. We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing.”