From The Ground Up
Fort Myers Beach became a haven of small intimate beach cottages, with many proliferating in the 1930s and 1940s, and that is the town most of us fell in love with during the succeeding decades, giving it that homey feel. A new trend, however, has enveloped the community over its recent past, with residential property owners replacing them with large homes on tiny property footprints, taking up seemingly every square inch allowed by the town’s Land Development Code. Not only does this produce an uncomfortable closeness between neighbors, but these large homes, particularly along the beach, take on the look of one solid continuous wall, obliterating any Gulf view.
To magnify this, many homeowners who wish to renovate their houses discover that floodplain restrictions limit how much renovation, repair or addition they can do to ground level homes. For many homeowners, the FEMA 50% rule, a part of floodplain regulations, creates a situation where even modest renovation exceeds 50% of the home’s value and triggers the need to elevate the home, often leading to the decision to tear the old cottage down and build new.
In an effort to find a middle ground and preserve its small town heritage, the Local Planning Agency (LPA) of Fort Myers Beach unanimously recommended that Council adopt a change to the floodplain ordinance concerning the 50% Rule. This is a regulation from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) that states that structures with a ground level living floor that do not meet or exceed the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) as identified on the current Flood Insurance Map may not be substantially renovated unless they elevate that living area up to 10 to 17 feet, depending on the location of the property.
The BFE is a 1% annual chance of flooding, often referred to as the 100-year flood, and is the national standard employed by the NPIF to purchase flood insurance. To become policy, the floodplain ordinance needs the approval of Council as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The NFIP defines a substantial improvement as a combination of repair, reconstruction, rehabilitation, addition or other items. If the cumulative cost equals or exceeds 50% of the market value of the structure before the improvement, or its restoration after substantial damage per NFIP regulations, the Florida Building Code, and the Town’s Land Development Code (LDC), it is considered new construction, with the entire building elevated to or above the BFE. This pertains to new as well as existing structures.
A Permit-by-Permit Basis
The Town’s proposed change would shift the 50% Rule from the current 5-year cumulative limit to a permit-by-permit basis. Market value is determined by using the Lee County Property Appraisers price for the structure’s ad valorem taxation or from an independent appraisal conducted by a certified Florida Licensed Appraiser. Other nearby communities, such as Sanibel and St. Petersburg, have already made this switch with FEMA approval.
To give an example, the permit-by-permit policy, if approved, would mean a homeowner could apply for permission to replace their roof and bathrooms and, once that is complete and passes inspection, they can apply for another permit to renovate their kitchen, so long as these projects individually account for less than 50% of the market value of the house, excluding its land value.
What makes this policy shift crucial to the Fort Myers Beach community is the entire island is in the Special Flood Hazard Area, meaning every structure is eligible for flood insurance. To make this more affordable, the NFIP offers the Community Rating System (CRS) as a voluntary incentive to encourage community floodplain management activities that exceed the minimum requirements. As a result, homeowners in the Town receive discounted flood insurance premium rates, to reflect the reduced risk that meets three goals: reducing flood damage to insurable properties; strengthen and support the NFIP insurance; and encouraging a comprehensive floodplain management approach.
On The Ground Floor
Fort Myers Beach homeowners now receive a 15% flood insurance discount, based on the Town’s current rating of 1,771 points. In discussing the 50% option with the CRS, the initial determination is the Town would lose just 29 points, but it would need to drop roughly 500 points to fall to another discount level. The proposed ordinance change easily falls into that safe zone, to allow many island cottages to receive much-needed deferred maintenance or improvements while retaining living areas on the ground floor.
Currently, you can improve a structure up to 50% only once every five years. The Town uses a Substantial Improvement Application to determine if the project can be completed under the 50% threshold, by reviewing the qualifying costs based on all materials, labor, built-in appliances, overhead, demolition and repairs prior to building permit approval and the beginning of work. Improvements that do not require a permit include painting, stand-alone appliances, floor coverings, exterior finishes, interior doors and hardware, along with outdoor landscaping, driveways, pools and seawalls.
Areas below the BFE cannot be for habitable purposes but only for storage, parking, and building access. Exemptions to the 50% Rule include renovations necessary for health or safety reasons, recognized historic structures, mitigation features that alleviate storm damage and development plan, survey, and permitting costs.
Town Council is set to begin this process at its Monday, May 15 meeting in Town Hall at 9 a.m. For more information, including how to determine your exact BFE, contact the Town of Fort Myers Beach at 239-765-0202 or visit bit.ly/1FMB50.