Cats and cat owners beware.
Free-roaming felines will be prohibited on properties in areas that host endangered species near where owners propose building new homes.
The Monroe County Commission unanimously approved a series of land-use rules Wednesday that comprise the cat caveat in areas home to the Key Largo cotton mouse, Key Largo woodrat, the silver rice rat and the marsh rabbit. Felines are known to hunt the rodents and rabbits.
Indoor cats will be allowed.
"If you want to build, be a dog lover," County Commissioner Heather Carruthers joked.
The rules, part of a federal lawsuit settlement, still must be approved by the state Department of Economic Opportunity, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and a federal court.
The settlement agreement was between FEMA and several environmental groups that sued the federal agency for not doing enough to protect endangered species.
The rules, if approved by FEMA, will keep that agency from revoking flood insurance for the county, and simultaneously allow some property owners to build on their land, a right previously denied them.
Roughly 55,000 properties are on what is known as the "FEMA list," which currently prohibits the owners from receiving insurance through the federally subsidized National Flood Insurance Program. The prohibition is designed to discourage development on land that is home to endangered species.
FEMA subsidizes flood insurance policies for 17,169 Florida Keys properties worth a total of $4 billion.
The new rules would allow property owners on the FEMA list to develop their land, but only if it's reviewed to make sure there is no endangered species habitat -- such as certain wood hammocks, for example -- on the properties.
In the past, the county has been hesitant to adopt different incarnations of the settlement agreement, saying its implementation would cost the county many thousands of dollars to inspect and put the county on the hook for "takings" lawsuits, so-called when government takes away property owners' right to build.
In December, FEMA threatened to place the county on probation and possibly suspend it from the National Flood Insurance Program. The federal agency now has given the county until June 30 to accept the proposal or come up with a reasonable alternative.
County staff and FEMA together developed the most recent plan, which "limits the county's exposure to takings lawsuits [and] significantly reduces implementation costs," according to Assistant County Attorney Bob Shillinger.
The settlement ended decades of litigation between FEMA and the environmental groups, which claimed FEMA was encouraging development in endangered species' habitat by offering the subsidized flood insurance to property owners there.
Commissioner Kim Wigington argued that the new proposal was still "going to add another layer of red tape and time and cost the county a lot of money to implement."
County Growth Management Director Christine Hurley admitted the county would have to add one staff biologist, but the proposal would give the 55,000 property owners a chance to develop their properties.
"It's a way that the giant cog can start moving again," Hurley said.
The commission voted unanimously in favor of the new rules.
Recommendation on recommendations
Also on Wednesday, the commission voted against former Key West City Commissioner Harry Bethel's request for a letter of recommendation, and later this year, will vote on a blanket ban on recommendations endorsing appointments to local, state and federal boards.
Commissioners may individually write letters or make personal endorsements for candidates for boards or appointments, the commissioners ruled.
Bethel had asked the commission for a letter of support to be appointed to the Florida State Retirement Commission.
Commissioners Wigington and Sylvia Murphy and County Mayor David Rice voted against the board giving recommendations, arguing that they should only come from individual commissioners.
In the past, the County Commission wrote such letters for Key West attorney Ed Scales to be appointed to the 3rd District Court of Appeal and Karl Borglum to be appointed as Monroe County property appraiser by the governor. Wigington and Murphy said they did not support either of those letters, saying it was not because of the people up for the posts, but rather because it put the commission in a bad position.
"What are we going to do if we are asked by more than one person?" Wigington asked. "We are supporting one person over another."
Carruthers supported writing Bethel the letter of recommendation, arguing that having a Florida Keys person on that state board "elevates Monroe County's exposure in Tallahassee." She also said Bethel was the only person from the Keys requesting to be on that board.
The board voted 3-2 against making the recommendation. Murphy asked county legal staff to write a resolution stating that the commission will no longer write letters of recommendations, but individual commissioners may. It was unclear Wednesday when the resolution would come back before the commission.