Planning commissioners talk future flooding

Planning commissioners talk future flooding
Holmes Beach planning commissioners discuss the future of the city’s flood policies and how those policies affect not only property owners but also flood insurance rates. - Kristin Swain | Sun

HOLMES BEACH – The city’s planning commissioners voted unanimously June 5 to find an ordinance amending the existing flood plain ordinance as consistent with the comprehensive plan. They didn’t come to that decision without first expressing some concerns about how the move could affect homeowners and their flood insurance policies.

The proposed ordinance alters the city’s flood plain ordinance to remove the duties of flood plain manager for the city from the building official’s duties. Though the new Building Official Neal Schwartz is a certified flood plain manager, Schwartz told planning commissioners that he believes the city commission’s plan is to appoint City Engineer Lynn Burnett as the flood plain administrator. He said he will provide backup as needed to Burnett.

With the duties of flood plain administrator given to Burnett, Schwartz said he is free to concentrate on the building department and turning around permit applications in a reasonable timeframe.

“I think Lynn’s very qualified,” commission Chair Chuck Stealey said, adding that he’s glad Schwartz will be working to make the permit process faster for residents and local contractors.

Commissioner Barbara Hines agreed with Stealey. “I do think the city is going in the right direction,” she said to Schwartz. “I think that what you’re doing is a good thing.”

Commissioner Scott Boyd expressed concern that because a contract employee, like Burnett, typically has many clients to answer to that a full-time city employee might be a better choice for the position. He asked that his concern be taken to city commissioners when they continue discussions on the subject at a future meeting.

The proposed ordinance also addresses city leaders’ concerns regarding permit-to-permit construction on homes built below FEMA’s base flood elevation. The change would require homeowners who improve their ground-level homes to adhere to the 50 percent rule for a period of one year from certificate of completion.

Under the rule, homeowners are allowed to improve their home up to 50 percent of the home’s assessed value. Any repairs or renovations over 50 percent require the house to be lifted to the base flood level or torn down and rebuilt to current codes.

In Holmes Beach, an issue identified by FEMA as permit-to-permit construction has been allowed in the past and commissioners are worried that with FEMA’s attention on the matter it will negatively impact the city’s flood insurance rating, resulting in higher premiums for homeowners. In permit-to-permit construction, a homeowner can improve or renovate the house up to 50 percent of the assessed value. Once a certificate of completion is received, the homeowner can have the home’s value reassessed and begin a new phase of construction valued at up to 50 percent of the home’s new value.

If the ordinance passes city commission vote, what’s currently being discussed is not allowing a home built under the base flood elevation to be improved more than once up to 50 percent of the home’s assessed value for a period of one year from receipt of a certificate of completion. The ordinance does include a provision for storm or other involuntary damage to the structure.

While damage from a storm wouldn’t count against a homeowner who had recently completed renovations up to the 50 percent rule, it would allow for repairs up to 50 percent of the home’s assessed value due to involuntary damage. If the repairs to the structure from the storm were found to be above 50 percent, the home would still be required to be elevated or torn down and rebuilt to current standards.

Boyd asked that if a homeowner has private flood insurance, instead of flood insurance through FEMA which will only reimburse a homeowner up to $250,000 of the property’s value, why would the 50 percent rule still apply. Schwartz said that FEMA doesn’t give an exception for one home. If one home was given an exception to the rule, then it would invalidate the city’s flood insurance rating and the city as a whole, including all properties therein, would be unable to participate in the national flood insurance program or seek disaster relief from FEMA.

A moratorium is currently in place and is up for consideration for extension to September 11 while city commissioners work out the details of the ordinance and put it up for a vote. The moratorium extension is scheduled to be voted on by city commissioners June 11.

Attorney Scott Rudacille, appearing on behalf of the owners of 502 74th Street, requested that when planning commissioners give their recommendation on the ordinance to city commissioners that they consider also recommending a grandfathering provision for any property where renovations were already in progress under the previous rules.

He said his clients met with the previous building official, Jim McGuinness, and were assured that they could complete extensive renovations on the exterior and interior of their ground level home before they even purchased the property. After receiving assurances and assistance from McGuinness, he said his clients purchased the home and began renovations more than a year before the moratorium went into effect Jan. 9, 2019. Now the exterior renovations on the home are being completed but his clients may have to wait a year to get permits to complete the planned renovations on the interior of the home.

Previously, City Attorney Patricia Petruff said she knew of one other homeowner in a similar situation.

While Stealey said he’s sympathetic to the homeowners’ situation, he asked Rudacille to take the issue up with city commissioners. He added that planning commissioners are only tasked with determining if proposed ordinances are compatible with the comprehensive plan and land development code. They cannot change a proposed ordinance.

With planning commission approval, the ordinance now goes back to city commissioners for a vote.

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