Enclosure inspection changes proposed

By Steve Estes

Sometime before the end of this year, Monroe County planners will be proposing a change to the county’s lower level enclosure inspection programs.

Two years ago, the Florida Legislature closed the door on one lower level inspection program by outlawing the county’s inspection on permit program. Under that program, any home where county staff identified a possible illegal enclosure below base flood elevation was subject to an inspection of that enclosure before the permit would be granted.

And this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency finally agreed to the end of the controversial insurance renewal inspection program.

But that left four distinct inspection programs still on the books in the county’s efforts, along with FEMA, to eradicate enclosures below base flood elevation where potential living space may exist.

Homeowners are allowed to have an enclosure below base flood elevation under certain restrictive criteria. The enclosure can be no more than 299 square feet for new construction. It must be used only for parking, primary structure access and limited storage, although the latter was significantly expanded a few years ago to include common household items that aren’t susceptible to flood damage instead of the yard tools and plastic furniture only rules in place previously. And the space cannot contain dividers other than to separate garage space from storage and cannot be air conditioned.

FEMA had threatened to toss Monroe County out of the National Flood Insurance Inspection Program in the mid-1990s after a community assistance visit where the federal agency determined that the county had been lax in its enforcement of lower level enclosures against FEMA flood plain management policies. That gave birth to the insurance renewal inspection program and other inspection programs as FEMA tried to limit lower level enclosures, some of which had been turned into living space, or additional space for the use of the families in the home.

Monroe still has four inspection programs on the books and will be seeking to add a fifth after the latest assist visit by FEMA.

Currently on the books are the transfer on sale inspection program where homes that have property appraiser codes indicating enclosed area below base flood must have an inspection of that area upon sale. The county put no teeth in that ordinance, but did allow language that could open up the seller to legal action by the buyer if the home was sold without the inspection and a disclosure that the enclosure may not be compliant.

Enclosures are limited to 299 square feet for new construction, either as an addition or for new homes.

A certificate of compliance program where homeowners can voluntarily submit to an inspection of the area below base flood in return for a deed notation that the structure is compliant with current codes. Officials say that the program will ease property transfers and erase any questions on the status of the property.

The county also has a Floodplain Management Regulation in place that requires a compliance inspection of the lower level enclosure if the structure is significantly improved—considered to be 50 percent of the value of the home—significantly destroyed—again considered 50 percent of the value—or a permit is pulled to significantly improve the enclosure.

But FEMA also wants the county to implement some inspection program that will actively pursue existing non-compliant lower level enclosures to round out the programs.

Last week county planning staff outlined that  program for FEMA.

The proposal is to cite any illegal enclosure for below base flood improvements that are found to be in plain view and begin processing those citations through code enforcement proceedings.

“We will be amending our remedial plan to include all five of these compliance measures,” wrote Building Official Jerry Smith in the letter to FEMA.

County Growth Management Director Christine Hurley said that means if building or code inspectors can see a lower level enclosure that appears to be non-compliant, or has no record of permits for the work, the homeowner can be cited for an illegal enclosure.

But she cautioned that this will not mean inspectors are driving around neighborhoods looking for enclosures they can see so they can be cited.

“If in the normal course of business we find an enclosure that is in plain view from the street and there are no permits on file or we have reason to believe it is a non-compliant enclosure, we will request an inspection and can, but don’t have to, begin code proceedings,” said Hurley.

She said that the county has moved from a coercion to compliance methodology in handling code cases where informal meetings are used to try and gain voluntary compliance before onerous code proceedings begin.

The newest proposal has some homeowners on edge because nearly every property will have to have at least two inspections from the county in coming years when central sewers are installed in the Cudjoe Regional Wastewater System area. That system covers every structure between Lower Sugarloaf Key and Big Pine Key.

Opponents of the new program say they believe the program is simply an easy way around the state’s prohibition on permit inspections.

The state prohibition doesn’t allow for an inspection of any other part of a building than the portion where the permit affects the structure.

“We already have similar language in our code for plain view violations,” said Hurley.

She said as an example that if an inspector is on the property looking at a wall replacement and sees open electrical lines or other life/safety issues, the homeowner can be cited and has to permit the necessary repairs.

Internal documents claim that the new program will go to the Monroe Board of County Commissioners before the end of the year so that the new ordinance can be transmitted for state Department of Economic Opportunity approval in January.

No Comments »

Leave a Reply