New flood rules friendlier

By Steve Estes

The Monroe County Planning Commission will get its first look at a new lower level enclosure inspection program March 28 that Growth Management Director Christine Hurley says is much friendlier to the homeowner than those in the past.

Gone will be the requirement to have a lower level enclosure inspection when pulling a building permit for other areas of the property.

A new state law last year banned that practice, and while the original new county flood plain management ordinance contained a continuation of that program until the effective date of the ban, Hurley says the permit inspection program is “completely eliminated” in the newest proposal.

Another change she says should please homeowners is the new definition of limited storage.

Previously, the county had defined storage in areas below base flood to be limited to mostly yard tools and items meant to be used rain or shine.

Under the new proposal, which she says came right off the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website, the definition has been expanded to include items of general use for a residential property that are not significantly prone to flood damage or that can easily be moved into the upper level of the unit.

That still won’t allow furnishings or appliances, but it does broaden the range of what can be stored in enclosures below base flood elevation.

With the exception of yard tools and some washers and dryers, flood insurance does not cover general household items stored in lower level enclosures. Property owners would be liable for their own losses in the event of a flood event.

One of the more significant changes proposed, according to Hurley, is a different definition of substantial improvement.

Under the existing definition, any substantial improvement to a home that equaled or exceeded 50 percent of the value triggered a requirement to bring the entire unit up to current code, including elevation of the lowest habitable floor.

“It used to be that market value was derived from the tax appraiser’s valuation,” said Hurley. “That valuation includes structure depreciation.”

“Now, we will be using actual market value determined by appraisal to trigger the 50 percent rule,” she said.

The newest proposal also allows for exemptions to the 50 percent rule such as improvements for life, health and safety issues which were accumulated over time to reach a 50 percent plateau. Those will not now be counted in the accumulated total.

Hand in hand with that proposed change is a different definition for substantial damage. Currently, the county counts demolition costs of a structure into the 50 percent calculation. The new ordinance eliminates demolition costs from the equation.

“If your home catches fire, you must demolish part of it to rebuild it. By adding those costs, it sometimes triggered the requirement to elevate a home that otherwise wouldn’t have to be,” she said.

The new proposal also allows for lateral expansion of a home, regardless of its flood plain status, where only the expansion must be elevated above base flood. It also allows for homes with a non-conforming status, either above or below base flood, to be expanded above base flood without the need to upgrade the entire structure.

Gone also, she promises, will be an ambiguity that exists in below-base-flood inspections. “We have codified that non-conforming structures can stay the way they were permitted. But, there’s a difference between non-conforming and illegal. If work was done without a permit, regardless of the elevation, it will be eligible to go to the code process.”

The new proposal also changes the way inspection-on-transfer processes are handled.

“We will no longer require that an inspection on transfer be filed before we issue a building permit,” she said.

What is now proposed also changes the requirements for shed inspections, a practice that had rarely been used until the last year, expanding the storage component for detached sheds of wood or concrete to match that for lower level enclosures.

“We eliminated the need to try and figure out a price of the worth of the shed,” she said.

Even though the county regulates the items that can be stored in a detached shed, insurers who write flood policies have said repeatedly that if you carry contents coverage on the principal dwelling, you also cover the contents of the shed up to the limits of the policy.

With the inspection on permit process being eliminated, the new proposal adds a Certificate of Compliance Program that Hurley believes will benefit future potential buyers of properties with lower level enclosures.

Using the property tax appraiser’s records, county staff will identify units where a potential non-conforming enclosure exists. Those property owners will be notified that they can request an inspection to obtain the compliance certificate.

“If you have been through another inspection, you can request a certificate of compliance inspection free of charge from us. We’ll come out and take a look to make sure the enclosure still meets the requirements,” said Hurley.

Once the inspection has been completed, property owners will be asked to sign a notice of non-conversion that will be attached to the title of the property with a drawing showing what is permitted to be in the lower level enclosure.

“Buyers will know when they tour a property whether it meets the regulations if the certificate drawing matches what they see. If it doesn’t, the seller and buyer will have to work out something to bring the property into compliance,” she said.

Where once county staff had proposed requesting compliance inspections every few years, that proposal has been dropped from the newest version.

The new ordinance is expected to go before the Board of County Commissioners April 18.

“We are expecting a flood of building permit applications after the board acts on this proposal,” said Hurley.

Local builders have been complaining for years that the county’s onerous inspection on permit process has been damaging to the industry. Many property owners, even with conforming enclosures, refused to pull permits and allow an inspection they objected to on principle.

The result, said representatives of the local contractor’s association, is that people used unlicensed contractors who didn’t care about pulling permits, or did the work themselves without benefit of a permit.

Neither method ensured adherence to state building codes in an area known to have the strongest building standards in the state.

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