Protecting the Florida Keys from the future's stronger storms and rising seas involves retreating from the most dangerous spots. That process will be by choice, for now.
Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a $5.5 billion plan to keep the island chain functioning after a devastating storm. It involves strengthening U.S. 1 in six places, elevating 7,300 houses, floodproofing 3,800 buildings and buying and demolishing about 300 homes.
Buyouts aren't new for the Keys, which has more willing sellers for a state-run buyout plan than anywhere else in Florida. But if the Army Corps is paying for buyouts, it comes with a catch. If a homeowner targeted for a buyout won't sell willingly, Corps policy says the city or county has to use eminent domain to kick them out.
That was a no-go for leadership throughout the island chain.
Despite the region's dire need for cash to keep it dry in the face of rising seas, Monroe County said it won't go forward with the potential project if the Corps insists on mandatory buyouts. The county wrote a letter to Corps leadership asking for a waiver exempting them from the rule and making the buyouts voluntary.
"We are hopeful for a response ASAP, but I would expect it to take a few months at least," said Susan Layton, chief of Corps' regional planning and policy branch in Virginia, which is running the $3 million study behind the draft plan.
If the waiver isn't approved, Monroe wants to go with a version of the plan that elevates most of the 300 homes instead.
The draft plan calls for raising 7,300 homes on stilts, a familiar building technique in the Keys that lifts houses away from the worst of hurricane-induced storm surge, as well as the increasingly common "sunny day flooding" brought on by rising seas.
But not all houses can be protected by merely elevating them. The Corps identified around 300 homes that, even if raised 12 feet, would still face damage from potential future storm surge. The solution, it said, is to demolish those properties and never rebuild on the lot again.
About 95 of those homes would be in Key West, 84 in Marathon and 48 in unincorporated Monroe, according to a Corps presentation given in June. In Key Colony Beach -- population 803 -- the Corps estimates it would buy 56 homes.