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Date of Issue: September 08, 2005

Expansion of nonconforming duplexes approved

The Holmes Beach Board of Adjustment unanimously approved a request by Pat McConnell to enlarge two duplexes located at 2913 and 2915 Avenue E.

At the Aug. 25 board meeting, Emily Anne Smith, of O'Brien & Smith Architecture, spoke as the agent for the applicant, outlining the merits of the application and speaking to concerns raised by nearby landowners regarding Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplain requirements.

Smith stated that the application was before the board of adjustment because of the property's nonconforming use. "Nonconforming ground-level structures are improved throughout the city every day with the approval of the building department," she said, "which are not required to come before the board."

The difference is nonconforming structures versus nonconforming use, and in this case, the property in question fits both categories. The property is nonconforming because it is a ground-level structure, and it is nonconforming in use due to its higher density.

In both situations, Smith explained, there are rules that must be followed to enlarge or improve the structure. First, the cost of improvement cannot exceed 49 percent of the appraised value of the existing structure - that is its market value.

According to Smith, FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program give building officials and design professionals exact requirements of floodplain ordinances and requirements. "These NFIP guidelines have been made part of the city's Land Development Code," Smith said. "All improvement cost data is submitted with the building permit application and is completely monitored by the city's building department."

Smith said the owner of a nonconforming property has two options, to make improvements within the 49 percent appraised value of the existing structure, or demolish the structure and build a new elevated structure, meeting all applicable codes.

"These new raised homes, to many on the Island who want to keep the character of the small cottage homes," Smith said, "have come to call these new structures MacMansions."

Assistant Superintendent of Public Works Bill Saunders stated that at some point the duplexes were permitted and allowed as a nonconformity. Today, the code allows improvements of a nonconformity and if McConnell's property met the density requirements, he would not need the approval of the board. Ground-level single-family homes are granted variances by the building department regularly, said Saunders, and cited the many homes on Key Royale Drive adding second floors as examples of permitted expansions of a nonconformity.

The difference is McConnell plans to expand the footprint of one of the two duplexes, adding a second bedroom and bath to the rear of both units.

"Expansion is expansion," said Saunders. The same requirements that apply to homeowners expanding upwards apply to McConnell. "He is within the 30-percent land coverage, under the 49-percent FEMA requirement, under the 40-percent impervious coverage and meets all the setback requirements - those are all the criteria I can use," Saunders told the board.

Kathleen Toale, a neighbor opposed to the expansion, raised concerns that flood insurance would be suspended or increased if the project were approved. "Nonconformity means just that - it does not conform to what we are required to do," she said. "Holmes Beach's participation in NFIP is based on your ability to adopt and enforce sound floodplain management."

Ignoring rules places all citizens in jeopardy, she stressed. At the worst, FEMA could suspend all flood insurance, putting all homeowners at risk for financial loss. "Suspension by FEMA might seem drastic, but what if they looked at the way we managed our floodplains and just changed our rating?"

According to Toale, FEMA rates a community from 1-10 with 10 being the worst. "We are at an 8," she said. "Not even near the middle of the scale. Every point means a 10 percent increase or decrease in our insurance premiums.

"This city should be doing everything possible to lower our rating by mitigating flood damage, not increasing its probability," she told the board. "We are on FEMA's radar screen. They are very interested in how seriously the rules of sound floodplain management are enforced."

Saunders countered that comments regarding FEMA made by Toale are correct, however, the city operates utilizing FEMA guidelines that have been adopted into the city's LDC. "That's what we work with, we're not knowingly putting our citizens in danger of losing flood insurance or increasing rates."

In fact, Saunders lamented that it's the homeowners who add bathrooms and livable space to the ground floor of their elevated homes after the city has signed off on it that are causing problems. That is not being permitted by the city, he said, and "it becomes a code enforcement issue and that's not my problem."

Board chairman David Moynihan commented that he had reviewed the code in search of guidelines. "As a board, it's not our position to rule whether this complies with FEMA," he said. "That's going to be the building department's job when it comes to the permitting process."

Fellow board members Robert Douglas, Alan Guy and Mark Kimball voted in favor of the expansion.

Several neighboring property owners also spoke in support of McConnell's plan, won over by the prospect of renovations in concert with existing homes and his goal to provide "more affordable housing" to prospective families in search of full-time Island housing.

In McConnell's view, improving ground-level homes will promote affordable housing, to the extent anything is affordable on the Island.

According to Smith, only three out of 225 two-bedroom units for sale on the Island were under $500,000. "My goal is to be at the bottom of [the price structure] available," says McConnell.

With the board's approval of the expansion, the next step for McConnell will be to obtain a building permit.