In February the Flagler Beach City Commission passed an ordinance that raised the level at which homes in flood plains must be built—from 1 feet above flood-prone ground, or “the 5-foot base flood elevation,” to 2 feet above base flood elevation, or a total elevation of 7 feet. The ordinance also required that any home improvements in flood-plain properties abide by the 7-foot rule if those improvements exceed half the value of the property. (An earlier version of this story misstated the heights by an extra 1 foot.)
Builders complained. They called the new regulations too steep. The city agreed to revisit them. In a unanimous vote, the Planning and Architecture Review Board recommended a compromise: leave the 7-foot freeboard rule in place (that is, a 1-foot increase) for new homes. But lower the requirement for substantial additions or improvements to 6 feet. “Freeboard” is the term used by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, to describe the height necessary to make a property relatively safe from flooding.
“I know there is a movement afoot to take our two feet of freeboard back to one foot for everything across the board, including new buildings, new construction,” Kay McNeely, the Flagler Beach administration’s point person on the flooding measure. “I disagree with that, and I think that’s a step in the wrong direction.” Flagler Beach, McNeely said, has 18 percent of the total number of flood insurance policies in the county, but accounts for 60 percent of claims. That points to a need for stricter regulation.
The higher elevations, McNeely said, will also save homeowners money. “The people who are building at 7 feet right now, and there are a few homes that are doing it, they’re going to pay on average $600 a year for insurance, compared to the homes at 6 feet, they’re going to pay over $900 a year for insurance,” McNeely said. Most communities, she said, are going to higher freeboards. “This is not a crazy idea, it’s the progressive thing to do to go to 2 feet.”
Nevertheless, a divided Flagler Beach City Commission appears more willing than not to scrap the new rules and return all construction to a 1-foot increase, or a total of 7 feet. The commission agreed to send the measure back to the planning board for a new recommendation. It did so after hearing a series of objections to the new measure from two powerful representatives of the local building industry, starting with Jason DeLorenzo, the government affairs director for the Home Builders Association and a Palm Coast City Council member. He’d met with each commissioner individually before the meeting.
Builders object to a compromise the city administration terms “progressive” and in line with recent trends.
“If you have a separate rule for new construction and alterations-additions, you’re really affecting alterations and additions, because breaking the 50 percent of market-value rule is pretty simple,” DeLorenzo said. “If you have a $100,000 house and you put a roof and some new windows in it and a bathroom, that’s pretty easy to break 50 percent, and then you’re looking to raise up the entire house in some way if it’s located in the flood zone, or if you wanted to put an addition and that addition is located in a flood zone, then that portion of the house has to be raised.” He urged the commission to go back to the original ordinance, eliminating any additional raising of floor levels.
Barbara Revels, a county commissioner but also the owner of a construction business, illustrated her opposition to the proposal by using one of her own properties, which straddles floodplain boundaries and is valued at less than $50,000. “So I can effectively only add $24,610 worth of improvements,” she said, before tripping the new-construction requirement. “That won’t build a garage. And I’ll exceed the 50 percent rule. My house there complies today at 6 feet, as most of the houses do in this community, except for the 11 houses that are recurring losses. They’re built below 6 feet. So that house I would have to take the roof off, pour a foot of cement inside it, basically, tear it down. And that’s what’s going to happen to all of these existing houses that can comply with 6 feet, most of them. If they can’t, they may be only have to come up a little bit if they’re built slightly below 6. So if you continue with your current change that you enacted in this past year, that I spoke out against at that time, at 7 feet for all new construction, you’re going to force this to happen on existing residences if anyone tries to improve their property.”
Revels, who’s lived in Flagler Beach since 1956, says no houses built at 6 feet have ever experienced flooding. “So if there’s been no problem and no flooding at 6 feet, I don’t think you had any citizens’ complaints in here asking you to make this change. That’s normally how government creates new legislation, from complaints from citizens or from other mandate that’s been handed down from a higher government.” (Commissioner Jane Mealy later rebuked the county commissioner’s interpretation of how government works: “Barbara said that we usually don’t do any kind of legislation except when people complain,” Mealy said, “but I think that’s a very poor way to run a government, if we just sat by and said well, nobody’s ever complained about something, let’s not do it. I think we need to be more proactive than that.”)
The new measure could stop reinvestments in homes, and thereby reduce property values, Revels argued, jeopardizing rejuvenation of older neighborhoods. She disputed the claim that home insurance rates would fall since the city has not secured a more favorable classification for better rates.
Dennis Bayer, a Flagler Beach attorney, said the city was finally getting new real estate closings. The city’s flood-construction measure, however, creates numerous “non-conforming uses in the city and impair the ability for people to flip their houses or sell their houses to new prospective buyers.”And Rick Belhumeur, a property owner and member of several city and county advisory board, including the planning board, said there is no rationale for a seven-foot rule whatever the reasons presented. “There’s so many other things that can be done to gain points,” he said, referring to the points that help the city improve its insurance rating. “It’s just silly. There’s no reason for it.”
McNeely was undeterred, seeing an attempt to eliminate even a compromised measure.
“The amended ordinance in front of you rolls back from 2 feet to 1 feet for additions, and gets rid of our substantial improvements requirement. This is a generous compromise, and that’s what’s here before you tonight if you agree to that. That’s what will be signed. Not the 2 feet,” McNeely said. She then disputed each of the four previous speakers’ claims. “Rick, have you talked to someone at FEMA that I don’t know who said that you’re not going to get new points for doing half of it? Who says that?” she asked, referring to insurance ratings points that could lower a property owner’s premiums. “I haven’t been told that. I never said that. I think we can still get points for keeping out 2 feet of freeboard for new construction.”
She also cast doubt on DeLorenzo’s claims and derided his conclusions for being drawn from websites. “I can tell you that the ordinance in front of you tonight was written with a lot of help from the FEMA consultant,” McNeely said, with assurances that it was legal. “There’s nobody from FEMA or anything else that you might have gotten off the website that’s going to come back and say that this isn’t a valid ordinance, because this is written correctly.” She added that she’d never heard of non-conforming uses in discussions about flood plains, or about anyone not able to get flood insurance.
Mealy and Commissioner Steve Settle were closer to the compromise proposal. Commissioners Marshall Shupe and Joy McGrew were not. They wanted it scrapped. Commissioner Kim Carney was absent, so there was no tie-break.
Shupe had voted against the new ordinance in February. “If I want flood insurance, I’ll get flood insurance. If I build in a flood zone, that’s my problem,” he said. He never thought 6 feet was a problem. New houses are being made to “stick up” two more feet, which creates aesthetic problems and adds steps for older people to go up and down. “Any place where there’s reference to 2 feet, it should be removed,” he said. “This 2 feet is exorbitant in terms of this community.”
To Mealy though, the new proposal reflects a collective effort for collective benefits. “If we can get to enough points to save all of us some more money on our flood insurance, then I think we should work together on that,” she said. “If we can make houses safer and less liable to suffer damage from storms, I think we should do that.”
For now, the new ordinance remains in place, with new homes and substantial additions being built at 8 feet. The planning board will revisit the issue and, within weeks, return it to the commission for a decision.