BY JILL ZIMA BORSKI, Key West Citizen, September 12, 2019

Marathon residents still rebuilding from Hurricane Irma have another consideration to add to their full plate of navigating the permitting and rebuilding process; new flood maps may further complicate elevation and height considerations.

Marathon’s city council and staff is well aware of citizens’ concerns, and they discussed the building department’s procedures, permitting and residents’ complaints at Tuesday’s council meeting. A workshop was suggested, as the new floodplain maps could complicate building configurations and costs.

Mayor John Bartus said residents are still hurting and rebuilding two years after the Sept. 10, 2017 hurricane that devastated the Middle and Lower Keys. Some homeowners had no insurance. As well, some Marathon residents were hit with “the 50 percent rule,” which skyrocketed rebuilding costs when adding elevation to homes was deemed necessary.

The 50 percent rule, also known as “substantial damage” rule, applies to a damaged structure in a special flood hazard area — or floodplain — for which the total cost of repairs is 50 percent or more of the structure’s market value before the disaster occurred.

At the meeting, Planning Director George Garrett expressed concerns about flood risks due to changing Federal Emergency Management Administration’s National Flood Insurance Program maps, which were shared publicly Aug. 22 in Marathon and could be adopted in the near future.

Because of the maps, Marathon’s Building Department is requiring homeowners to sign a form that acknowledges the new draft coastal flood maps may indicate a future change to the required elevation of a building currently in the permit process. This intends to help homeowners understand what they propose to build today under the existing flood maps could become non-conforming after the new draft maps are formally adopted, which could increase flood risk and insurance costs.

According to the draft maps, many Marathon homeowners will see an increase in their FEMA NFIP flood zone ranging from a half-foot to 51/2 feet.

The Growth Management Department acknowledged the new map provisions are going to strain the city’s maximum height restriction as required base elevations increase, and are preparing to draft changes to the city’s minimum height restrictions.

Staff proposed that only those who agree to abide by the new map provisions would be allowed possible increased height provisions.

Staff also suggested no additional habitable floors be allowed as part of any new code modifications.

“Sometimes residents and contractors feel they are in an adversarial relationship with the city,” Bartus said. “We are bound by the Florida Building Code and FEMA rules, but where there is discretion, rule in favor of our residents.”

City Manager Chuck Lindsey said, “We already give residents that benefit. We have to make hard decisions.” He elaborated on the city’s code process and said lessons could be learned from Hurricane Dorian. “There’s a reason for the [stringent] building code.”

Growth Management Director Doug Lewis also supported the strict building code by adding that Hurricane Irma’s $12 million debris removal process in Marathon showed 80% of material was construction- and demolition- related, such as concrete and refrigerators, compared to more typical vegetative debris.

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