Streets for People / The Canary In Our Florida Keys Coal Mine Is Our Fragile Water System. Here’s 10 Things to Reign In Overtourism and Overdevelopment that Killed the Bird

After most of us experienced a temporary water shut off March 11 and 12 and then a boil water order, Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA) Executive Director Greg Veliz explained in an open letter to customers what happened and all but admitted we’ve reached our limit on development and tourists as our water system can no longer handle the increased demands. As a result, the FKAA has reduced the daily volume of water to relieve pressure on our aging pipes that are in desperate need of an expensive replacement. That’s why you experience a slight reduction in water pressure. And with a $42M project to replace 4 miles of pipe beginning in April and an admitted need to replace all 130 miles of the 40-year-old pipes at $10M a mile, our capacity isn’t increasing anytime soon. 

Traffic is getting worse by the year; affordable housing is impossible to find for our beleaguered workers and there’s a growing list of jobs going unfilled creating lowered expectations on everything from restaurant and hotel service to public transit and essential City/County services. Overtourism and overdevelopment relate to the carrying capacity of a community. If the other indicators haven’t convinced you that we’ve reached our growth limit, FKAA’s mea culpa that they can’t pump any more water through our old, creaky pipes surely reveals it’s time we said enough and get off the merry-go-round of ever more visitors and the increased development that caters to them. 

Overtourism and overdevelopment lead to housing, traffic, and water quality problems in our near shores. Now even our fresh water supply can’t keep up. 

Here are several indicators that we’ve reached capacity and 10 things we can do to get off the merry-go-round and preserve and protect the quality of life in Key West and the Florida Keys.

FKAA’s Candid Admission We’ve Reached Our Capacity

Here’s the gist of what FKAA Director Greg Veliz said in his March 23 letter:

“We have customarily pumped between 23 and 26 million gallons per day. Prior to Covid, our levels were closer to 19 to 21 million gallons a day. The demands on our system have continued to increase…The pipe, in its current condition, is simply not able to support the volume of water or the pressures required to move it, therefore we have been forced to make reductions…We do not feel confident that our pipes can continue to handle 23-26 million gallons a day, so we have limited our output to 22 million gallons a day. In order to achieve that we’ve had to reduce pressure.”

Other indicators include: traffic congestion continues to be a top concern as ever more thousands of cars arrive on our islands every day. Our airports report record arrivals. Affordable housing consistently ranks as the number one issues in surveys and is our number one priority in the City’s strategic plan. The cruise ships, wastewater, shallow injection wells and dying reef issues amply demonstrate that we’re overcapacity. And we don’t even know if we can safely evacuate all our people – a major indicator of overcapacity – because the hurricane evacuation model has not been updated since 2010.

In a nutshell we’ve reached our capacity for people. 

Overtourism and the Resulting Overdevelopment Is Reducing Our Quality of Life

Don’t take it from me, here’s what some thoughtful environmentalists are saying: 

“The level of development that has been allowed just doesn’t make sense. Traffic is overcapacity. Our coral reef is dying. Our endangered species are declining. The level of development is insane. We need start back peddling.”
– Dottie Moses, lives on Key Largo and volunteers with Save A Turtle, Florida Keys Scenic Corridor Alliance and more

“Low water pressure, overcrowded highway, dead reef, decreased water quality, etc. We exceeded development levels a long time ago.”
– Don DeMaria, long-time commercial fisherman and advisor to the Sanctuary Advisory Panel and other fishing and environmental groups, lives on Summerland Key

Vacation rentals are the major cause of our lack of housing. We are never going to be able to build ourselves out of the housing problem. “
– Denise Werling, served many years on the Monroe County Planning Board and lives on Cudjoe Key

7 Things Our Community Should Do To Address Overtourism and Overdevelopment

1 – Divert Tourist Development Council (TDC) Funds from Marketing to infrastructure that Invests in Resiliency and Workforce Housing

We need to stop mass promoting Key West and the Florida Keys. Our destinations and events can promote themselves. The incessant general advertising helps fuel people turning their homes into vacation rentals. Turn off the spigot. People know we are here and will find us. And those dollars should be used for infrastructure that tourists use and the people that serve them.

2 – Help Stop Sham “Affordable Housing” Development

We need to make our discontent known to those in power. Developers and their attorneys are at virtually every city and county commission meeting – asking for approval for yet another “affordable housing” project that is anything but affordable. No one holds their feet to the fire to ensure these projects have a significant number of low or very-low-income units. Because of the high annual median income (AMI) in Monroe County, $73,153 (we have lots of second homeowners and wealthy retirees), two of the four “Affordable Housing” categories are actually “Market Rate” or above.  So, a Developer can receive Federal Affordable Housing incentives and get virtually anything approved locally yet build an entire complex of housing that’s 100% Market Rate. Don’t be fooled by these “Affordable Housing Projects” – require any new development or re-development include at least 50% of Low or Very Low Affordable Housing.  

3 – Crack Down on Illegal Vacation Rental and Discourage Conversions 

Florida law does not currently allow “carve outs” that permit local communities or counties to restrict the number of vacation rentals. Yet, the Keys are an Area of Critical State Concern.  If ever a carve out was possible it would be for our ACSC. Our politicians should be asking for this, rather than asking the legislature to approve more building permits that the Florida courts have already deemed illegal and jeopardize safe hurricane evacuation. Let’s ask our City, County and State representatives to do this in next year’s session. The time to start working this issue is now. 

4 – Let the Truman Annex Transient Rental Licenses Expire in 2025

There’s no need for the City to do anything for the 162 properties with transient licenses in the Truman Annex. No study. No compensation. No nothing. Simply let them expire and then vigorously enforce the 30-day rule on anyone who wants to continue to rent. Maybe some of these units will become homes for locals again.

5 – Sunset As Many Existing Transient Rental Licenses As Possible

For other transient licenses there’s got to be some regulatory provisions to sunset these over time. Or buy them out. Or don’t let them transfer with a property sale. Or simply jack up annual fees and taxes on short-term rentals.

6 – Limit Vacation Rentals and Provide Incentives for Property Owners to Rent Long-term to Workers

For every stick there should be a carrot. What can we do to limit vacation rentals and make it easier and more profitable for people to rent long-term to workers instead of short-term to vacationers? Put a cap on the number of vacation rentals? Provide property tax breaks to long-term renters? Subsidies for property owners providing long-term affordable housing (could be paid for via fees from vacation rental permits or fines imposed on illegal short-term rentals)?

7 – Oppose The Use of the 1,00 New ROGO’s Outside of Key West

In a March 23 story in FLKeysNews about FKAA saying they needed more than a billion dollars to replace 130 miles of aging pipe reporter David Goodhue said:

“As the pipes continue to age, the Keys are seeing an ever-increasing number of tourists, vacation renters and residents. A bill is also making its way through the Legislature that would allow the building of 1,000 more affordable housing units in the Keys, raising questions of how the struggling infrastructure will be able to keep up.

“That is one of many issues that make the continued effort to add more development to an already over-developed string of islands so ill-advised,” said Richard Grosso, an environmental attorney representing several residents trying to block passage of the bill, HB 627. “The Keys are struggling to find the money and capacity to keep existing roads, homes and businesses dry and keep the water running, and facing dangerous evacuation times just when hurricanes are getting less predictable and intense.”

Since this story the Florida Legislature has passed and the Governor on Thursday signed the bill Mr. Grosso references (HB 627 was rolled into SB 102) to provide a legislative fix to the Florida Supreme Court ruling upholding the Third District Court of Appeals decision in August 2022 to not allow use of 1,000 ROGO’s (Unincorporated Monroe 300, Marathon 300, Islamorada 300 Key Colony Beach 50, and Layton 50) of the 1,300 because it violated Florida Statute 380.0552 that designated the Keys an Area of State Critical Concern. The new ROGO’s were provided to the Keys in 2018 by then Governor Rick Scott. Key West’s 300 were allowed but have not been used yet. According to a March 30 story in the Citizen Marathon and Islamorada plan to use their allocations and Monroe County hasn’t formally applied to use them. 

So those ROGO’s are coming – although perhaps not without another court case. We should demand Monroe County, Marathon (who’s already allocated most of them to specific developments and built 52 of them), and Islamorada not accept using these for all the capacity reasons we’ve talked about above, including the hurricane evacuation concerns discussed in the March 30 story. 

While we need more affordable housing units, the fact is we wouldn’t need them if we addressed the overtourism that drives people to turn existing residential units into vacation rentals or required developers to dedicate 50% of their “affordable housing” project to Low or Very-Low-Income levels. Most of the remaining ROGO’s left in the system (those beyond the 1,000) should only be used for affordable workforce housing. 

3 Things You Can Do To Help

1 – Join Last Stand

Last Stand is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that’s been fighting to protect the Keys quality of life and natural environment since 1987. Full disclosure, I’m a Board Member. We are currently taking stands on overdevelopment and overtourism as it effects safe evacuation time, affordable housing, traffic congestion, water quality, our hospitals, police and more. We recently gave an award to Safer Cleaner Ships and supported the recent victory in pushing back on the use of shallow-injection wells in Marathon to help save our nearshore water quality. We are part of the consortium of groups who recently tried to block passage of HB 627 (now SB102) of which Richard Grasso (above) is a part. They help educate and inform and track legislation at the County and City level. Join their mailing list here. Follow us on Facebook. Become a member here

2 – Follow and Subscribe to Local News and Groups

Staying informed about locals’ issues by following and subscribing to local news outlets. 

As the bumper sticker says, “I get my news from Gwen Filosa!” Gwen is our local WLRN NPR southernmost reporter. In addition to her own reports here she avidly consolidates news from around the island so follow her Facebook and Twitter pages and you’ll always be up-to-date. You’ll have fun too. 

Key West Island News’ website is another great resource. Editor Linda Grist Cunningham has a weekly column and has local news and Florida news pages that consolidate other sources so you don’t have to scroll all over the place. The Facebook page is a must follow too.

Keys Weekly is online or pickup a copy every Thursday at the red boxes and locations around town. There are Key West, Marathon and Upper Keys issues each week. Local owners Britt Myers and Jason Koler and Editor Mandy Miles will keep you informed with in-depth and well-researched articles.

I subscribe to Keys Citizen and so should you. They have digital news and a good old-fashioned paper that is dropped off at your house 3 days a week. They are our local newspaper of record. Local reporters like Timothy O’Hara are first rate.

I subscribe to KONK Life and so should you. While they haven’t produced a weekly print edition since Covid, they do an amazing job of consolidating local news and presenting it in daily e-blasts and online. My “Streets for People” column appears there too.

FLKeysNews is another online source that you should keep in your repertoire. 

If you are on Facebook, join the Reimagining Key West group. Started during Covid, they are by far THE most thoughtful place on the Internet for good information and discussion about the issues concerning all of us.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug my own Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown Facebook page, Twitter page and blog. If you want to follow what’s happening in transportation and downtown Key West development, these are your go-to sources.

  1. Get involved/Talk to your City and County Commissioners

Keep links to your local elected officials handy so you can write and call them when needed. Here’s some links:


The Canary Died. We Need to Listen and Act

The canary in the coal mine died when FKAA told us in no uncertain terms that our water system can’t handle any more people in the Keys. To protect our quality of life and better address all the problems we already agree are hurting us, i.e., lack of affordable housing, finding workers, traffic and parking congestion, degradation of our nearshore waters, and more, we need to say ENOUGH! We’ve reached our capacity on visitors and residents. Everything we do going forward should be done in the context of preserving and protecting the paradise we have and not giving in to the greed of more and more.

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Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led nationally renowned efforts promoting transit, bike, walk and smart growth for Arlington County, VA’s DOT. Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a few non-profits. Follow him on Twitter here and his blog here.

You can find three years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and here and the 10 most recent stories below:

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