The 50% every 5 years rule is dead on Fort Myers Beach. With the June 19th Town Council passage of Ordinance 17-09 dealing with new Floodplain Regulations, the confusing and often-misunderstood 50% FEMA Rule was dramatically altered.
The 50% rule limited how much renovation or repair could be done within 5 years to a residential property within Fort Myers Beach before triggering the need to meet all current building codes (meaning elevate it among other things). The magic number was 50% of the home’s value without the land. So, if your home was worth $200,000 and you planned to do $100,000 or more worth of renovation or repairs to it, you had to meet current building codes, specifically FEMA required elevation rules for new structures, which varies from 10-17 feet on the island.
The only option was to do some of the work now and wait 5 years to do more — not a popular option with those who owned an old home and wanted modern bathrooms and kitchens or those looking to buy and live on the island now.
It was confusing and limiting. People would buy a home on the island and then discover that their plans for the home could not be permitted. The 50% rule was also blamed for the rise in teardowns of older beach cottages. Owners decided they wanted something new rather than wait five years to made renovations.
As frustrating as it was, Islanders heard repeatedly that there was nothing that could be done about it. If the Town wanted its residents to participate in Federal flood insurance, it had to play by FEMA rules.
Within the last few months Town staff has learned that while the 50% part had to stay, the Town could adjust the 5-year period to either 1-year or go to a permit-by-permit regulation. After a couple trips to the Local Planning Agency and two public hearings at Town Council, it was approved at council’s last meeting before their summer break. The town now has a 50% rule that works on a permit-by-permit basis.
If that $200,000 homeowner wants to do renovations worth $99,000 now they can apply for a permit and do them. Once they are done and all work has been signed off on, they can go in for another $99,000 (or anything up to 50% of the home’s value) permit for another project.
This is a major change. While it will surely save a few of the older cottages as those who love the style and history of them will be able to modernize them without the need to elevate them.
Many other beach homeowners now have the opportunity to renovate their homes without the need to elevate them. No one is going to be taking a small cottage and turning it to an at-grade 2,500 square foot home, but the beach has a lot of at grade properties built in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s that suffer from what is euphemistically called, “deferred maintenance.” The rules made it just too difficult to do much renovation. All that has changed with this new ordinance.
As for the traditional beach cottages, we hope enough people want to live in them so that many of them remain in use on our island. The odds are that there are a limited number of people willing to live in less than the 500 square feet that these cottages provide. They’re cute, they’re nostalgic but they’re tiny.
We hope our Town is willing to cooperate with the Estero Island Historical Society (EIHS) in their efforts to preserve some of the beach cottages on their property behind Beach School. The property owner donated the 3360 Estero cottage. The work to move and restore it is being donated. All it needs is a place to land near the other two EIHS cottages.
While Lee County is driving this decision, it would be helpful if our Town Council were supportive of it, rather than nitpicking whether it has been designated as historic by the Historic Preservation Board yet. The cottage was snatched from the landfill by mere days, then had to be moved immediately so construction could begin on the site. Everyone involved is interested in preserving the cottage for its historical value. According to the EIHS, the cottage sat there along the Gulf for almost a hundred years. The Town’s historical recognition program is just a few years old. Surely an application will be forthcoming for historic recognition.
Wouldn’t a small historic village with 3-4 cottages near the EIHS cottages be a wonderful attraction for residents and visitors? We don’t know if the space is there for that many, but can easily envision how popular a ‘living history’ type of attraction that would be. Just look at the popularity of the Friends of Matanzas Pass Preserve’s ‘”Visions of the Past” program giving glimpses into the various groups that have called Fort Myers Beach home over the centuries.
Or maybe the cottages could be used to display more of the EIHS collection, or showcase the work of local artists? Let’s think outside the box on this. We have the chance to preserve some of our vanishing beach cottages, let’s make this work!