Column: Woman’s nightmare with county building officials over FEMA’s 50 percent rule

Apr 10, 2012

The following article was published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on April 10, 2012:

Woman’s nightmare with county building officials ‘keeps going on’


By Eric Ernst

When Susanna Stock set out to remodel her new home on Siesta Key, she wanted more room to take care of her aging father.

That was five years ago. Her father is in a nursing home now. He never did move to Siesta Key. Stock’s home improvement project stalled four years ago in a battle with Sarasota County over FEMA’s 50 percent rule.

The county commissioners today will debate their enforcement of the rule, which, if they choose one option and make it retroactive, could allow Stock to finish her home.

Her case may be one out of 100; it’s certainly a mess.

As part of its property insurance subsidization, the Federal Emergency Management Agency dictates that if the cost of remodeling a home exceeds 50 percent of the home’s market value, then it must be brought up to current floodplain code. In low-lying coastal areas, flood code compliance could entail raising the base elevation of the building, a prohibitively costly proposition.

So, the “value” of a home, as well as the improvement cost, become crucial numbers in big remodeling projects. The value needs to be as high as possible.

Stock, 66, who moved to Sarasota from Carlisle, Pa., figured she’d be fine. In February 2008, her permit called for $158,278 worth of work, slightly below 50 percent of the property appraiser’s assessment of $337,900, which does not include land and improvements such as a pool.

Everything went bad from there. A disgruntled electrical subcontractor reported Stock and her builder for exceeding the 50 percent rule, and county building official Greg Yantorno concurred after he inspected the work site and invoices.

The stop-work order went out, and the original builder had to pay a $5,000 fine and lost permit privileges for three years.

Stock insists she knew nothing of the overruns. “The deal was, I’d write the checks; he’d make sure we were on budget,” she says.

At that point, however, Stock was stuck. She had to: A. come into flood code compliance (which would have cost $250,000, she says); or B. tear out all the improvements; or C. establish that the home was worth more than the property appraiser said it was.

She hired attorney Casey Colburn and went for C.

What has happened since is what the county commissioners will discuss today.

Colburn appealed the stop work order and hired an independent appraisal, which set the value of Stock’s home at $589,859. In March 2009, the Board of Adjustments and Appeals rejected the appraisal, following the advice of Assistant County Attorney Alan Roddy.

Undeterred, Colburn and Stock’s new contractor, Joe Angeleri, met and talked with building officials for months. They could not get the county to recognize the updated appraisal.

In April 2010, the commissioners — recognizing the folly of allowing a building official to question the legitimacy of a professional appraisal — set up a review process.

In October 2010, appraiser Don Saba, hired by Colburn, analyzed the Stock house. He came up with a value of $577,486 for FEMA purposes.

This time, Yantorno ordered a review, and another appraiser came up with a value of $444,300, which was upheld.

The whole experience with Stock does make appraising appear as sleight of hand. The property has been examined seven times, with values set from $288,077 to $589,859. And surprise, surprise, the appraisers hired by the homeowner came up with the high numbers, those hired by the county came in on the low side.

By the second review in October 2011, hard feelings had evolved. Angeleri, the contractor, says Yantorno has a personal vendetta against Stock. “She’s definitely being bullied,” he says. “We’re standing here in total disbelief that this is going on so long.”

Saba says that in 30 years of evaluating several thousand waterfront properties, “This is the first that I’ve ever had an application turned down for anything.”

Colburn says, “She’s in a tough spot all because of county employees who apparently are untouchable.”

Yantorno says he’s just doing his job, protecting the county insurance rates.

Today, again, the county commissioners will examine that process. One option would eliminate the appraisal review adopted in 2010 in favor of an alternative in which the building official would simply accept a qualified appraisal at face value.

That’s probably not a bad idea. At least it would remove the perception that building officials can arbitrarily rule on appraisals they have no qualifications to judge.

Let FEMA decide how well that works. Coincidence or not, representatives will be here Friday to look at records and visit sites in the agency’s first local audit since 2000, Yantorno says.

Removing the subjectivity retroactively would certainly help Stock, who has accumulated close to $100,000 in legal fees.

She’s living in the house but afraid to install the doors on her kitchen cabinets. Any day the stop work order could turn into a code violation, with fines accruing at $100 a day.

“I don’t know what I did to anybody,” she says. “I’m a private person. I’ve never liked notoriety, never sought it.

“You feel like you have the sword of Damocles hanging over your head. All the extra money I tried to save so hard to live on? It’s gone. When you have a nightmare, eventually you wake up. This one just keeps on going.”

Find this article here: