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Tuesday, Sep 23, 2014

Flood insurance rate hikes threaten ‘Old Florida’ communities


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PASS-A-GRILLE — Many of the beach cottages, motels and storefronts on this barrier island have been here nearly 100 years.

They’ve endured a series of tropical storms but avoided a direct hit.

While dozens have been razed in recent decades, some replaced by palatial beach homes, Pass-A-Grille’s character as a quiet Gulf Coast village has essentially endured.

What residents and merchants fear may wipe out their beloved historic district isn’t a catastrophic flood — it’s rising flood insurance costs.

“There aren’t too many places like this in Florida anymore. We’ve got all these McMansions and condos,” said Bill Thompson, a member of the St. Pete Beach Historic Preservation Board.

“If it [flood insurance reform] goes into effect, we’re going to lose our historic properties in Pass-A-Grille. There’s just no two ways about it.”

For coastal towns that have built a community, and tourism economy, around offering visitors an authentic “Old Florida” experience, unaffordable flood insurance rates could drive shopkeepers out of business and retirees on fixed incomes out of their homes.

Only 20 percent of all policies provided by the National Flood Insurance Program nationwide will see their premiums rise this year as a result of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act. The changes are set to take effect Tuesday, unless Congress acts to stop or delay that from happening.

But as the government removes grandfathered rates for thousands of homes built before modern flood maps, owners of historic properties face a dilemma: raise their floor height above base flood elevation or pay exorbitant premiums.

There’s another option Pass-A-Grille residents especially fear, and that’s tearing down the old bungalows and replacing them with multimillion-dollar homes built to modern flood standards.

Former St. Pete Beach city commissioner Bev Jackson envisions rows of uniform two- and three-story homes raised above garages such as the Florida Panhandle community that became famous for its uniformity as a set for the 1998 film “The Truman Show.”

“We’re going to be Seaside,” Jackson said.

The full impact of the federal flood insurance reform still remains foggy for many historic districts along Florida’s coast.

In St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement in the United States, shops, restaurants and cathedrals built of wood and coquina shell flood frequently when big storms sweep over the nearby Matanzas River.

Rather than raise these aging structures above flood elevation, many property owners are encouraged to take other measures, such as installing dams on their doorways to keep water out, city Planning Director Mark Knight said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the flood insurance program, allows historic districts to avoid regulations meant to make property owners either raise their building heights or rebuild according to current code.

Improvements that increase a property’s value by 50 percent or more generally trigger those requirements, but cities can make historic buildings exempt from the rule, as long as nothing is done to compromise their historic characters.

Those rules will still apply under Biggert-Waters, but historic properties won’t be exempt from the same rate hikes facing all other older homes.

For properties in low-lying areas, especially near the coast, annual rates may double or go up tenfold, depending on base flood elevation, exceeding $20,000 a year in some cases.

Because flood coverage is required only for holders of federally backed mortgages, Carl Hollenback says he’ll drop his policy on the Seahorse Restaurant in Pass-A-Grille if rates climb as expected under the new law.

“I’ll take my chances,” said Hollenback, who has paid off his mortgage on the restaurant.

The Seahorse has operated as a restaurant for 75 years at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Pass-A-Grille Way, directly across the street from the Intracoastal Waterway.

In Hollenback’s 35 years of ownership, the restaurant has flooded 15 times, being located at one of the lowest points on a narrow stretch of land between the Gulf of Mexico and the intracoastal.

Each time, he wipes down the tile floor, lets the building air out and reopens. He filed one claim when a commercial fryer he had just bought for $4,500 was ruined; he got back $2,400.

Many residents are galled by what they see as the unfairness of the national flood program, which has collected about $16 billion from Floridians in the past 35 years — four times more than what they received back in claims.

Amy Loughery, the longtime owner of the boutique store Bamboozle on Eighth Avenue, says the government encouraged communities such as hers to embrace preservation by becoming part of the National Register of Historic Places. The new law undermines that preservation goal, she said.

“Which is it? We encouraged all these homeowners to keep their smaller properties, keep within the historic guidelines of our community,” said Loughery, who has served on the city’s preservation board.

“Only now we’re going to say, oops, sorry; we’re going to rip that rug right out from under you.”

Loughery leases her store, a 1930s-era building, and doesn’t yet know how much of an increase to expect in her rent in the coming years.

While state and federal grants are available to help homeowners purchase and restore historic properties, there’s no assistance available to defray ongoing costs such as maintenance and insurance, said Anne Peery, executive director of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.

The changes to the flood insurance law won’t impact all Florida towns equally, but preservationists such as Peery worry it will cause more people to shy away from investing in historic properties.

The funky beach cottages in Florida’s most famous waterfront town, Key West, will largely be unaffected by Biggert-Waters because most of them were built on high ground and remain above base flood levels, said Diane Silvia, preservation planner for Monroe County.

What will become of the rickety wooden restaurants and shops that have come to characterize Old Florida in towns such as Cedar Key and Apalachicola isn’t clear yet.

City leaders in Apalachicola had sought to cap building heights at about two stories to maintain the quaint character of this waterfront town, which has buildings dating back to the 1830s.

That may be impractical, as most of the town is already below base flood elevation and will need to rise to avoid high premium costs, said Anita Grove of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s going to take some time to absorb everything that’s happening,” Grove said.

Bruno Falkenstein has spent years studying FEMA’s flood program, which he blames for driving Pass-A-Grille property owners to prefer new construction to restoration.

As a former St. Pete Beach commissioner, Falkenstein urged the city to adopt the exemption that allows owners to improve historic buildings without bringing them up to flood code.

His grandfather moved here after World War II on the recommendation of a fellow soldier who told him that Pass-A-Grille was paradise.

His family owns several properties, including the two-story Hurricane restaurant on Gulf Way.

FEMA, he says, has long used a broad brush to create its flood maps, ignoring the fact that few Pass-A-Grille homes have sustained serious flood damage in the past 100 years.

Flood premiums ought to be based on history. Most properties in his community have clearly stood the test of time, he said.

“When you start looking at the history and you start saying to yourself ‘What did they do at the turn of the century? Why was it that they built the homes like they did?’ ” said Falkenstein.

“The homes themselves, when they were originally built, were elevated. It’s almost like the old-timers knew the height where the water was going to come.”

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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