After Hurricane Irma, homeowners scrambled to clean up their properties and haul away debris in a “one Village” effort to get Key Biscayne back to normal as soon as possible.
But while the Village footed the hauling bill for single-family homeowners and some condos (like those in The Garden District and that front Crandon Boulevard and Ocean Lane Drive), several gated condos with private streets had to foot the bill themselves.
That includes large properties like Key Colony, The Ocean Club and The Towers of Key Biscayne.
The private gated condominiums had to pay debris removal companies to come onto their properties and get rid of material. For other homeowners, it was a matter of their tax dollars at work.
Local leaders discussed that issue October 3 and are expected to take it up again at a hurricane workshop Thursday, November 16 at 6 p.m.
Village Council member Brett Moss put it on the agenda on the 3rd, noting, “As a Village, we decided to put $4 million in our reserve account for emergencies, and a large majority of that goes to debris cleanup – but [condos] were on their own to remove debris. They are taxpayers. I don’t see why there’s a discrimination going on, and it makes me uncomfortable.”
Moss said part of the issue stems from Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement rules that historically didn’t cover debris removal on private property, i.e. gated condominiums like those on the Key. However, he said, FEMA does have a Private Property Debris Removal Program, and there is precedent elsewhere in the country for getting reimbursement.
He said the Key could follow a successful approach used by Beaufort County in South Carolina: officials there declared a state of emergency for both public and private properties, and then got a signed legal right of entry from each owner so government contractors could come in.
The condo residents would still be responsible for cutting debris and hauling it into piles, but from there it would be Village contractors hauling everything away, he said.
Moss suggested getting signed rights of entry ahead of time, and then, as needed, declare a state of emergency based on accepted standards – as he noted, debris in condo complexes presents the same safety hazard as in single-family neighborhoods: piles can block first responders, attract vermin, present a fire hazard, and force people walking on sidewalks into the traffic lanes.
Moss’s colleagues said the idea is worth considering.
Council member Gary Gross suggested asking Key Biscayne Condominium Presidents’ Council leaders to help designate specific spots for debris collection within large gated condo complexes so crews aren’t picking up dozens of different small piles: “It has to be organized so it makes sense for the condo association and it makes sense for our pickup plan,” he noted.
Council member Allison McCormick said debris monitors should participate to ensure FEMA rules are followed, and Council member Luis de la Cruz agreed the work should be done under the same standards the rest of the Village follows. “If we can find a way so we have the best chance of being reimbursed by FEMA, then that’s how we should do it,” he said.
Gross said the Village needs details about FEMA guidelines for private property debris removal, and asked Village Manager John Gilbert to see if a FEMA rep can attend the hurricane workshop to provide more information. Gilbert said he’ll work on having an expert available.
While that can help the Council develop a plan moving forward, De la Cruz noted, “We’ve still got to talk about how we’re going to deal with the gated communities today, and the expenses they’ve already suffered. This is one island – it’s not just the single-family homes we’re looking after; we’re supposed to be looking after everybody.”
De la Cruz said the Village “probably won’t be reimbursed” for Irma debris removal in condos, but, “We can’t just ignore the expenses.”
Council members said it’s a conversation they’ll have at the workshop; condominium officials encouraged them to do so. As Luisa Conway, representing Emerald Bay, said, “Think about the other half of our Village.”
Tony Camejo, representing the Condominium Presidents’ Council, noted, “It’s clear that FEMA is open to this issue and we need to be very proactive to make sure they recognize the importance of gated communities on Key Biscayne.”
He said condo residents make up 63 percent of registered voters and 52 percent of the tax base, so, “It’s a question of fairness. The Council cannot discriminate against one class of taxpayers over another just because they happen to have private roads connecting their community. This is a health and safety issue we were facing, and we had to take immediate action to provide for the safety of our residents.”
Former Vice Mayor Michele Estevez, representing Grand Bay Villas and Estates, agreed. “I believe that it’s fair that as one Village we should be included, as the supplement will come from all taxpayers’ money.”
Two condominium officials gave an idea of just how much they paid for debris removal. Martin Pinilla from The Towers of Key Biscayne estimated costs of $80,000, and Matt Bramson said Key Colony paid $100,000-$150,000 and Key Colony IV paid $75,000-$100,000.
Bramson noted that comes on top of the fact that condo residents’ taxes support stormwater system improvements and could help pay for buried utilities – even though condominiums paid for and maintain their own private systems on both counts.
While Council member McCormick noted there is a counter argument – some might say an expensive beach restoration being considered by the Council more heavily benefits condo owners – Bramson remarked, “When there’s an opportunity to see costs shared more fairly given our tax contribution, we would appreciate that.”