Pilot program officially off county books

By Steve Estes

The Federal Emergency Management Agency Tuesday officially called an end to the controversial downstairs enclosure pilot inspection program in Monroe County with publication in the Federal Register of that end.

“FEMA is publishing this document to give notice that the pilot inspection procedure under the Pilot Inspection Program was terminated on June 28, 2013 for Monroe County…” states the Register Notice.

With that notice FEMA has given up control over the homes identified in the pilot program as needing a lower level inspection that simply never applied for one, or for one of several reasons negated the need for an inspection.

Under the terms of the pilot program, homeowners whose houses were built after Jan. 1, 1975, the stand-up date for FEMA, and carried flood insurance had to submit to an inspection of their home before renewal of the insurance if it was identified as having a possible lower level enclosure that might be used for habitable space.

Thew pilot program was put in place in 2001 as FEMA’s answer to a poor community assistance visit. The federal agency said it found a significant number of lower level enclosures that violated the requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program flood plain management rules and threatened to throw Monroe County out of the NFIP unless it devised a way to eradicate the offending lower level enclosures.

After more than a few attempts to do that, unsuccessfully, Monroe County leaders negotiated with FEMA for an acceptable program to alleviate downstairs enclosure issues, and the pilot program was born.

Opponents of the program claim that the economic cost to the Keys was significant as more than 1,500 homes had to tear out a lower level enclosure that no longer met the strict requirements of the negotiated flood-plain management rules. At least one economic analysis showed that the inspection program had caused a $250 million devaluation in home values here.

“For that reason alone, the official end to the pilot program is a good thing for the county,” said Commissioner George Neugent.

Neugent had railed against the program for much of its life as too onerous on Keys homeowners in several ways.

“Many times a buyer would purchase a property with a lower level enclosure only to find out that it was illegal and would have to be torn out. They were forced to tear down a significant part of their home, that they had paid to purchase,” said Neugent.

The end to the insurance inspection program also ends the county’s need to be actively intrusive into people’s property,said Neugent.

“There are a lot of people out there that are not fond of government intrusion, and even though the program was mandated by a federal agency, we (Monroe Board of County Commissioners) got blamed for what was going on,” said Neugent.

Monroe County managed to chip away at the Draconian measures of the pilot program, however, gaining an ally in the state Legislature, and through the efforts of a grass roots organization formed to fight the lower level enclosure program in its entirety called Citizens Not Serfs, founded by the late Phil Shannon.

Former law fellow for CNS, John November, wrote and lobbied for state legislation that eventually cut the legs out from under one of the more oppressive enclosure inspection mandates in 2010. November, with the support of Florida’s US Senator Bill Nelson, got the state legislature to agree to a bill that prohibited building departments from requiring lower level enclosures prior to the issuance of a building permit, a program that many had said was working to kill the construction industry in Monroe County.

With the need for an enclosure inspection before pulling permit to paint the outside of a house, many homeowners either declined to do needed repair and renovation work, did the work themselves in the evening or on weekends, or hired contractors that didn’t care if a permit was pulled, with the net result that work got done outside of proper code procedures, and sometimes not to state standards.

With the end of the pilot program and the forced end of the building permit inspection program, FEMA required the county to come up with some way to address the remaining nonconforming lower level enclosures, which come estimate to still be over 4,000.

Thus was born the inspection on sale program where any home sold where potential habitable space below base flood level is suspected must have an inspection of that enclosure to ensure its compliance with FEMA guidelines.

Requiring an inspection on sale was always the way to handle this issue, says Neugent.

“Eliminating non-conforming enclosures by attrition is a much less onerous way to address this issue than the aggressive inspection procedures we had in place,” said Neugent.

According to November, the new programs still leave Monroe County with one of the most stringent flood plain management ordinances in the country, but the removal of the forced inspections was a “win-win for everyone and ended an invasive practice against the local homeowners.”

“I’m gad to see the pilot program officially gone for good,’ said Neugent. “That doesn’t mean we won’t continue to bring non-conforming structures into compliance with the inspection on sale provisions or code prosecution of in-plain-sight violations. But we will no longer be the agent that invades homes with the intent to force peole to tear out a vital part of their home.”

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