Pilot inspections are all done

By Steve Estes

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials Tuesday confirmed that the much-maligned pilot inspection program for lower level enclosures will end as promised on June 28.

And better yet for Monroe County property owners, the county will not be forced to devise some other program to corral the 2,800 or so properties that were identified as needing inspections during the pilot program that didn’t.

According to Growth Management Director Christine Hurley, FEMA officials agreed during a Tuesday meeting that the majority of those who didn’t request inspections during the pilot program probably made the choice not to carry flood insurance rather than acquiesce to the invasive program.

The pilot program was implemented in 2003 after FEMA threatened to throw Monroe County out of the National Flood Insurance Program. Without being part of the NFIP, county property owners would have been forced to seek private insurance to satisfy lender requirements for flood insurance for a mortgage.

Or the mortgages could have been called by the lenders.

Under the terms of the pilot program, homes identified as having a possible lower level enclosure that could be used for something outside the parameters of FEMA guidelines, inspections were required either for a new flood policy or for a flood policy renewal.

The catch was that the homeowner had to voluntary call for the inspection as the county has no inspection rights without property owner permission or a civil warrant to go on the property and judges have been loathe to issue civil warrants in these cases due to property rights concerns.

Hurley said FEMA officials were OK with the steps that have been taken during the decade of the pilot program in an attempt to eradicate illegal lower level enclosures.

In fact, she said, FEMA reps commended the county for its work in eradicating and controlling illegal lower level enclosures after a 1996 community assist visit blasted county officials for allowing such structures to proliferate.

The existing lower level enclosure inspection programs will remain in place, with FEMA hopeful that those programs will, through attrition, ferret out the remaining illegal lower level enclosures.

One of those programs is the inspection on sale policy.

Whenever a home is sold in Monroe County, if the property record card indicates an enclosure below base flood elevation, either the buyer or seller must submit to an inspection of that enclosure to ensure that it’s compliant with FEMA guidelines.

Failure to obtain that inspection can lead to code enforcement action. After the inspection, non-compliant structures will have one year to come up to code.

If there are problems with the enclosures, Hurley said the issue of who seeks and obtains compliance can be worked out between the sellers and buyers.

FEMA also agreed that the county will keep its size restrictions on lower level enclosures. Current guidelines allow for an enclosure no larger than 299 square feet. That enclosure can be used for building access, parking and storage limited to items used in normal operations of a residential home.

That latter caveat is a relatively new creation of just a couple of years. Prior to that, storage was limited to only items that could be considered as outdoor use such as lawnmowers, yard tools, bug control devices and the like.

If a homeowner wishes to eradicate any future issues with a lower level enclosure, the county has implemented a certificate of compliance program. Under that program, the homeowner voluntary requests an inspection of the area below base flood. If the structure is compliant with FEMA guidelines, the county issues a certificate of compliance that travels with the deed. If issues are found, the homeowners can bring the property into compliance to obtain the certificate.

Hurley says the certificate program should aid in home sales in the county by eliminating the danger of enclosure issues for a buyer.

Of course, the county also has zoning regulations in place that can be used to combat illegal lower level enclosures.

Homes with downstairs enclosures that are being rented to non-family members makes the home a duplex, a use that is not allowed in most single-family residential zoning districts. If the use is discovered, the homeowner can be taken through the code enforcement process to obtain compliance with FEMA guidelines.

“It’s a red-letter day for unincorporated Monroe County,” said County Mayor George Neugent. “The FEMA pilot inspection program, which has been the law of the NFIP in Monroe County, is no longer. FEMA spoke well of our accomplishments of achieving compliance and our flood plain management program.”

Hurley says that the recognition by FEMA of the county’s work in righting some issues with flood plain management control could also mean that property owners might eventually see some breaks on flood insurance premiums.

She said that FEMA spoke about allowing Monroe County back in the Community Rating System for NFIP, a move that opens the door to premium discounts for county property owners.

“That’s probably the best news to come out of this meeting,” said Hurley.

FEMA’s decision does not alleviate the need for those property owners already in the pilot program inspection pipeline to complete the process. There are approximately 500 of those.

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