Remodeling codes get makeover of their own

Jul 9, 2008

Herald Tribune–July 9, 2008

By Zac Anderson

SARASOTA COUNTY — It is a common sight: A historic home near the water is deemed too expensive to renovate and down it comes, to be replaced by a mansion.

Less apparent is the role played by building codes, designed to keep flood insurance rates low, in hastening the loss of historic homes.

Sarasota County commissioners were acutely aware of the competing values Tuesday when they voted 4-1 to update the construction rules for flood-prone areas. The commission tried to strike a balance between strengthening the building code and providing owners of historic homes flexibility.

Some structural additions were exempt from rules that require expensive flood-proofing, allowing owners of historic homes to add more space without onerous expenses. But going soft on these homeowners can upset the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and when FEMA gets angry, it can eliminate the 25 percent flood insurance discount that benefits 46,126 Sarasota homeowners.

So commissioners closed a loophole that homeowners had used to make renovations without flood-proofing.

FEMA requires flood-proofing if more than 50 percent of a structure is renovated. Instead of large renovations, homeowners would perform a series of smaller improvements in a short time. The new rules prevent these "phased substantial improvements."

Not everyone liked the changes. Commissioner Nora Patterson said the new rules were too broad. "My concern is that at some point we end up causing the teardown of some of the neatest of the older houses in Sarasota," she said.

Commissioner Jon Thaxton had the same concerns about "mega mansions" replacing historic homes, but he argued that more flexible rules would help prevent teardowns by giving homeowners more options.

Paul Radauskas, the county’s top building official, said the rules strike a good balance. "These will end up saving a lot of old buildings without endangering the insurance discount for everyone else," Radauskas said.

The average insurance discount is $122 annually and $194 for the 28,525 homeowners in extra high-risk flood areas, according to county statistics.

In March, FEMA sent the county a letter noting that 884 properties would lose their insurance discount because of improper renovations and other problems. If the county has too many of these properties, it can lower the discount, Radauskas said.

"With Hurricane Katrina and the floods in the Midwest, FEMA is looking hard at repetitive loss properties and those not in compliance with building codes," he said. "It’s getting very expensive for them."

No homeowners spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. Radauskas said the rules were reviewed and approved by homeowner associations on the barrier islands and by remodeling professionals.