FEMA challenge looks likely

Apr 19, 2011

The following article as published in the Key West Citizen on April 19, 2011:

FEMA challenge looks likely

Majority of County Commissioners Want to Retain Variance for Handicapped man

A majority of Monroe County commissioners say they are willing to challenge the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision that prohibits a handicapped man from living in an enclosure below flood elevation in his family’s Cudjoe Key home.

Late last month, FEMA, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program, sent Monroe County a letter telling it to rescind a variance the County Commission issued Rory Brown, whose son Darren is wheelchair-bound. The variance allows the family to use the first-floor room in their two-story stilt home. FEMA also ordered the county to have the enclosure “brought into compliance,” which means the family will have to remove the lower unit.

The National Flood Insurance Program, which offers subsidized flood insurance in areas vulnerable to flooding, requires that Florida Keys homes built after 1975 be elevated above mean flood elevation, and prohibits ground-level living space in those homes. Variances to the rule are rare.

On Wednesday, the County Commission will either rescind the variance granted the Brown family or defy FEMA’s order, which could force a showdown with the federal agency. In the past, FEMA has threatened to remove the county from the national flood program for such defiance.

FEMA and the county entered into an agreement in 2002 under which the county inspects homes for compliance when flood policies are renewed and when property owners apply for a county work permit. Homeowners with illegal enclosures face fines and nonrenewal of flood policies until the enclosures are removed.

County Mayor Heather Carruthers and County Commissioner George Neugent said they would not vote to rescind the variance. Carruthers said FEMA officials at a “higher level” should have made the decision in the Brown case, not those in the agency’s field office in Atlanta. She called FEMA’s decision “heavy handed,” noting that the variance was only granted to the property for as long as the Brown family owned the home.

“We tried to make it as narrow as possible,” Carruthers said.

County Commissioner David Rice said he would support keeping the variance in place if it did not set a precedent that would lead to other requests from other property owners.

“I would prefer not to rescind this,” Rice said. “There is a potential for a Pandora’s box. … I would like to support the Brown family.”

County commissioners Sylvia Murphy and Kim Wigington said they could not support the variance. Both said if the county granted a variance to one family, it should do it for all. Wigington also questioned the liability for the county if Darren Brown were stuck inside the ground-level quarters in a hurricane or severe storm. Wigington also said she was not comfortable with “jeopardizing everybody’s flood insurance.”

The commission will discuss, and possibly vote, on the variance when it meets at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Harvey Government Center, 1200 Truman Ave.

Find this article here:  http://keysnews.com/node/31284