Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Could Global Warming Submerge the Florida Keys?

This Friday an international study devoted to global warming and resulting sea-level change will be released. This report is highly anticipated - many hope that the report's findings will make the world, and especially the United States, recognize and remedy the trend of global warming.

South Florida, and certainly the Florida Keys and Key West, should be particularly concerned. This region has been submerged under water many times in the geologic history of our planet. Actually, the islands of the Florida Keys are reefs that once were covered in sea water. Only when the ocean levels dropped did the reefs become land masses that we know today. According to a 1999 report by Harold Wanless of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami:
"...120,000 years ago, the sea level was 20 feet higher than it is today. The
Ice Age lowered the sea to as much as 420 feet below current levels. Since the
end of the Ice Age, sea levels rose at a rate of about 23 centimeters per year,
creating both the Florida and Biscayne bays. For the last 3,000 years,the rate
of sea level rise has slowed to between 3 and 4 centimeters per year,allowing
the coastal ecosystems to stabilize and move seaward. Around 1930, the
rate of sea level rise began to increase. Since then, the sea level has risen
about 9 inches in South Florida — 10 times the rate at which it had been rising
over the past 3,000 years. “This sets the stage for dramatic changes in our
coast-line and shallow marine environment...”
The Florida Keys eco-system may have already been warning of problems for years. The sea levels have risen, as evidenced by a report from an 18th century ship run aground near Looe Key. The ship reported Looe Key as an island 1000 feet long and 250 feet wide. Today Looe Key is submerged except during very low tides. And, long time Key West residents and mariners remember when Sand Key was an island, and there was sand that they walked upon. Today, the land is gone, and most unfortunately, much of the coral.

Why is this happening? The answer is Carbon dioxide. Clear evidence exists that global temperatures are tied to levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Today, carbon dioxide is at its highest level ever known. Where does all this carbon dioxide come from? Cars, factories, electricity generators, and a long list of other man-made sources. Basically: carbon = oil. Burn it and you have carbon dioxide. Long ago, massive volcanic eruptions may have caused climate change - releasing massive amount of the earths stored carbon into the atmosphere. Today, civilization is removing the carbon from the earth with pumps and excavators then quickly burning it for power and warmth.

What will Friday's report tell us about climate change and the Florida Keys? The Everglades and most of South Florida will also one day, once again, become submerged under water if the planet continues to warm. Likely, we are on the front line for the effects of sea level change. You might say the Florida Keys are the Atlantic Ocean's version of the Tuvalu islands of the South Pacific. That small chain of islands is slowly becoming submerged due to the rising sea level, and islanders know that one day in the not-too-distant future, they will have to move.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Kicking the Legs Out From Key West Tourism

After watching the City of Key West Commisssion Meeting last week I was in a bit of shock.
On the Commission agenda was a proposal aimed at stopping the conversion of Key West hotels to condos/condotels. Previously I wrote that selling off the hotel rooms and converting them into luxury second homes, condos, and condotels is suicide for the tourism business. No sane leader would do it.
Since I warned that the city was allowing tourism, the main engine of the Key West economy and community, to be dismantled, I was amazed and saddened by the position of our Mayor and two of our commissioners.
I wanted to write something about it...I knew I had to. But it took days for it to settle in, and until I rewatched it (on the local public access rebroadcast) I couldn't quite figure out where to begin.
I've decided it would be easier at this point to detail the meeting:
Commissioner Mark Rossi created the proposal to stop the conversions of hotels to condos (transient to non-transient).
Public comments were heard, and nearly every single person spoke in favor of the proposal. Business leaders, Chamber of Commerce President, and workers stepped forward to let the city know that selling off the hotels will be disasterous. Ed Swift, the owner of Conch Train and numerous other tourist dependent businesses, warned that if the city does not act to halt the trend of conversions then we are "disassembling this economy." Swift mentioned that over 2500 RV and hotel units have been lost in the Keys due to the conversions taking place.
One person did speak out against passing the proposal to ban conversions: lawyer Jenny Stone. She said that the legislation was procedurely improper. The newly hired city attorney forcefully argued that the legislation was proper, and sounded ready to head to the Florida Supreme Court.
But mostly everyone spoke in favor of stopping the conversions of hotels to non-transient use.
Next the proposal was brought before the commissioners.
Rossi led off, noting that tourism is "our lifeblood" and that he was worried. Rightly so. Rossi owns bars on Duval Street, and he said business is down. An even more ominous sign, Rossi pointed out, was that there are commercial vacancies on Duval Street and Simonton Street and that businesses are having a hard time surviving.
Commissioner Menendez agreed with Commissioner Rossi - then he launched into a scolding about the affordable housing crisis and the fact that the city leaders have done little to make a dent in the problem.
Next up was Commissioner Verge, who can be difficult to read while his comments wander back and forth over the various opinions aired. Finally he revealed his opinion of tourism, saying that Key West is " a crossroads between mass tourism and a different kind of tourism." Verge mentioned Vail, Colorado and said that change "naturally occurs." Someone should tell him that Vail was built to be a tourism town...there was no town there before it. Then Verge went on to espouse the virtues of higher property values, mentioning how the enigmatic developer Pritham Singh turned a $10 million dollar piece of property into a $90 million dollar piece of property (presumably Truman Annex), and that meant higher tax receipts. Verge also didn't believe that all these hotels in the condo-conversion process were truly offline because the Holiday Inn Beachside still has rooms availabe. Actually Commissioner Verge you are incorrect - the Holiday Inn bought the property across the street and is now renting rooms under the Holiday Inn name. The old Holiday Inn, the one in the process of converting to condos/condotels, is not renting rooms. Rumor is that people are unhappy with the investment and are threatening lawsuits. Verge also pointed out that since the occupancy rate on the island is less than sold-out than "maybe we overexpanded." Also, he said about restaurant seats is "maybe 18,000 restaurant seats should be 14,000. In the end, Verge was o.k. with tourism suffering and stated he would vote against the "moratorium".
Commissioner Bethel kept his comments brief and to the point. He didn't say one way or another what he thought about tourism. But what he knew he believed in was property rights. And damn anyone who will interfere with property rights. He was dead against Rossi's propoasal.
Last up was the Mayor who began with a confusing joke about Bush and the French & Indian War, saying why fight a battle that is already over? In his words, "This war is over...the invisible hand took care of it." The Mayor was referencing the crash in the Key West condo market, and that a developer would have to be insane to get involved in a new conversion project. In his words, "We are experiencing market failure today."
So you are in favor of tourism Mr. Mayor? NOT! The Mayor began speaking out of the other side of his mouth arguing that hotels are not full and are charging too much. He mentioned that the Comfort Inn had charged $286 the other night, and that he didn't think guests that paid that much for a room "buying trinkets" in reference to Ed Swift & Company's warnings that business is hurting.
The Mayor might not understand or like tourism. It doesn't sound like he does. By blaming the slow tourist season on the hotels ignores the fact that the northeast and midwest have had the mildest winter in a century. If it is 70 degrees in NYC, people don't feel the need to head to Florida.
In the end, Commissioner Rossi's proposal didn't pass and the Mayor said that now is a "true new day". According to him all we need is a little "onterpuhnerial speerat".
Tell that to the business owners, families, and workers that make up our island.
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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Why Is Affordable Housing Right for Key West?

I keep reading in the Citizen's Voice, an anonymous rant column in a local paper, someone(s) calling in saying that affordable housing isn't and shouldn't be a right, as in the Bill of Rights. And for the most part, I agree. One shouldn't expect to buy a property in Beverly Hills for something "affordable". And in reality, Beverly Hills does not need affordable housing. Nearby are plenty of communites for the necessary workers to commute from.

So why should affordable housing be something our Key West government cares about?

To me, there are more than a few good reasons, but I want to point out an often-overlooked one:
It is a right to have our government run wisely.

And this is where the anonymous Citizen's Voice contributor is not understanding the problem.

The City of Key West requires a lot of personel to run properly. I won't go into a full list, but there are police, firefighters, building department, code enforcement, liscensing dept, road crews, electrical crews, technicians, and countless others. Hundreds of people.

These people need places to live in. Homes. And these places need to be affordable.

Without affordable housing built, the city will have to raise taxes to a multiple of what they are now to pay their workers enough to buy a million dollar house. Can you imagine how much the tax bill would be if the police, fire dept., and the rest of the city workers have to pay for a million dollar mortgage. Nearly no one would want to live here. This puts the city at risk of becoming financially unstable.

So, my point is that I don't care if you don't think affordable housing should be a right. But the city must have a finanically sound plan. Being an island too far from the mainland to bus in our city staff, affordable housing is a requirment of smart planning in Key West.

And that is why it is my sincerest hope that the City of Key West gets around to actually building affordable housing. Our city's future depends upon it.
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