Builder takes aim at building official over permitting process

Acquiring permits for a construction project can be complicated.

It also can be difficult.

Frank Agnelli, owner of Agnelli Pools & Construction, said Holmes Beach building official James McGuinness cost the owners of a home on 79th Street more than a year in delays and $5,875 to permit improvements to the structure.

After purchasing the property in 2017, the owners wanted to add a garage with a bedroom and bathroom upstairs, add a second floor to the main living room, and replace the pool and decking.

Before developers could begin work on the project, state and local rules demand a obtain a “letter of no objection” from the city to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, required for projects seaward of the coastal construction control line.

The line in Holmes Beach runs approximately the same as Gulf Drive in the area of 79th Street.

After clearing the project with the DEP, developers must return to the city to obtain site-plan approval and city permits.

Agnelli submitted a request for an LNO Sept. 26, 2017, and received McGuinness’ LNO review comments Oct. 26, 2017, without approval.

“No jurisdiction where I’ve done work has required a month to reply to an LNO,” Agnelli said. “It’s usually a week’s notice, and then we get the LNO, because it has nothing to do with the setbacks, FEMA numbers, anything.”

“But (McGuinness) made all of that an issue at that point of trying to get the LNO.”

The Florida Administrative Code states an LNO is only verification by the city that the proposed project does not contravene local setback requirements or zoning codes. LNOs do not deal with Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations or building codes.

The LNO was issued Jan. 11. After Agnelli completed his designs for the project, he submitted the plans to the city for approval and requested a meeting with McGuinness to discuss the project.

At a meeting June 19, Agnelli said McGuinness was concerned that the property’s $1,331,000 appraisal by Gary Hunt of Hunt Appraisal was inflated to allow Agnelli to make substantial improvements without elevating the structure.

Agnelli says McGuinness recommended he split the job into two permits to meet FEMA requirements: one for an elevated structure with a soft connection or post-lateral addition and one for the renovation itself.

FEMA’s substantial improvement rule, the 50 percent rule, applies to pre-FIRM buildings — those built at ground level before the existence of the Florida Insurance Rate Map in 1975. The rule requires a substantial designation for any project on a pre-FIRM building exceeding 50 percent of the building value for remodeling, renovation or improvement.

Building costs include structural costs, finished materials, flooring, interior finishes and more. Permit costs are not included.

When a project is deemed a substantial improvement, the owner is required to comply with the National Flood Program, which can result in a requirement to elevate the ground-level structure.

Agnelli planned $425,000 for the renovation, well under the 50 percent threshold designating substantial improvement, so elevation of the structure shouldn’t have been required.

“He’s questioning the property appraiser’s appraisals,” Agnelli said. “He is questioning a state-licensed property appraiser who has done hundreds of appraisals in this city.

“When did he become an expert in property appraisal and what those guys do for a living?” Agnelli continued.

According to Agnelli, in September, after spending two months re-engineering the project and changing plans to meet McGuinness’ recommendation, the building official said elevating the structure was unnecessary. He recommended one permit for the renovation.

Agnelli became frustrated by McGuinness’ conflicting orders.

“Put it all together, submit, ‘we don’t like that, split it up,’” Agnelli said. “We split it up, spent all that money, then we submit, and it sits there in permitting for two or three months before we come to find out we have to put it all back together and we’re doing it exactly the way we had it from the get-go.”

Agnelli submitted an invoice to the city for $5,875, the cost to plan and re-engineer the project to meet McGuinness’ recommendations.

“They’re not going to pay it, I can see that,” Agnelli said. “The people at the building department can’t do anything because Jim McGuinness has to have his fingers on everything and all he does is cause delays. No one wants to make a decision in the department because Jim might not like it.

“How is it possible that it takes me seven months to get a building permit, but yet it takes me four weeks to build an addition for that permit,” Agnelli continued. “So, my problem is, there’s a complete breakdown in the building department, and it’s not from the staff, it’s from its leadership.”

Agnelli added the project at 103 79th St. would take less than six months, but he and the owners had to wait twice as long as the project would take to complete permitting.

When contacted Oct. 23 by The Islander, McGuinness refused to comment on the issue.

Holmes Beach Mayor Bob Johnson could not be reached for comment before press time for The Islander.