Friday, November 13, 2015
Does 35 Feet Mean 35 Feet, or Not?
Beach commissioners make strides to define building height
Posted: November 12, 2015 - 11:43pm | Updated: November 13, 2015 - 6:45am
By JENNA CARPENTER
In hopes of clarifying how building height is measured on St. Augustine Beach, commissioners hosted a 3.5-hour workshop Thursday night, looking at how base flood elevation and habitable space affects height on Beach property.
The workshop was held in response to resident confusion over the Planning and Zoning Board’s approval of an Embassy Suites to be built on A1A Beach Boulevard even though it exceed the 35-foot limit, as voted on last year.
The biggest issue was how building height is determined, taking into account certain state and federal regulations for coastal buildings.
The workshop also included opinions from Federal Emergency Management and insurance officials.
“I want to make sure everyone understands all the sides of the argument,” said St. Augustine Beach Mayor Andrea Samuels.
The Embassy Suites is estimated to be 53 feet, but since state and federal laws require ocean-front buildings to be elevated, the 35 feet doesn’t start until the first level of habitable space, where people live and work.
They also argue state and federal laws supersede the charter.
That sentiment was echoed Thursday by Kevin Partel, who worked as a coastal permitter for Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“More stringent requirements supersede local and state requirements,” he said.
Federal and state laws
The Florida Building Code also requires minimum elevations for buildings that are in the state’s coastal construction control line.
Since part of the Embassy Suites is within that line, the building has to adhere to those regulations, Partel said.
“As soon as a building crosses the coastal control line, everything has to comply,” he said.
The building code also says the lowest habitable floor of a beachfront building must be elevated above the breaking wave crest using piles and horizontal structural members, as required by the state’s One-Hundred-Year Storm Elevation Requirements. For Embassy Suites, that means an elevation of about 18 feet, which then establishes the first level of habitable space.
A similar rule states that buildings on the coast have to be elevated for flood insurance purposes.
The Federal Emergency Management [Agency] categorizes cities susceptible to flooding into different zones, and to be eligible for federal flood insurance, structures built in those flood zones must be elevated, said city manager Max Royle.
Through the federal flood insurance program, cities are divided into different zones based on vulnerability to flooding.
Royle said the land on which the Embassy Suites is being built is in the “velocity zone,” which has the most restrictive base flood elevation.
It has a base elevation of 17 feet above sea level, Royle said.
“We have to comply with county, FEMA and DEP regulations on base flood elevation,” said Commissioner Margaret England.
How other coastal cities determine building height
As part of the discussion, commissioners were given examples of how other similar cities — like Anna Maria Island, Jacksonville Beach, Ponce Inlet and Sanibel Island — limit building height within their respective cities.
Samuels said they have one thing in common — base flood elevation in regards to FEMA standards.
She pointed to the city of Sanibel Island, which states that in the “resort housing district, the maximum height of buildings shall not exceed 33 feet above the base flood elevation of the FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Map or the Florida Building Code for buildings located seaward of the state’s coastal construction line, whichever is higher,” according to the ordinance.
The Sanibel ordinance also states that no building can exceed 49.8 feet.
“It keeps coming back to base flood elevation,” she said.
Base flood elevation is computed by FEMA, and is the elevation water is expected to rise during the base flood, according to the FEMA website.
Intent of the charter
Thursday’s workshop also included a discussion by the committee who drafted the charter two years ago.
Five committee members expressed the process they went though to get the charter written. They said the state and federal laws regarding building height was explained to them, but some remember it being more through than others.
“Really, the discussion isn’t where you start to measure from. The issue is how high the limitation is going to be, recognizing the FEMA regulations,” said committee member Henry Dean. “So what I thought we were talking about was a specific number that was going to start at the first-floor elevation, which started at the FEMA regulation.”
But another committee member, Grace Guido, said she didn’t remember any specific discussion about state and federal regulations.
“They were mentioned, but nothing was specific,” she said.
As attention turned to clarifying charter language for the future, the commissioners discussed tweaking the language to limit habitable space to two stories in the velocity zones.
City attorney Doug Burnett said it was possible, but there could be legal ramifications. He cited taking aways property owners’ rights as one such example.
While the commission did not make immediate suggestions, Samuels instructed each of the commissioners to take a look at the examples of the other city ordinances and to come back to the December meeting with suggestions.
“We had a great discussion, and we know what we need to do,” she said. “We need to establish boundaries and limits, but also make sure it’s legal.”
Commissioner S. Gary Snodgrass said he was comfortable moving forward, but also asked Burnett to prepare legal risks for the city.
sponger2 11/13/15 - 09:59 am 20I've an idea...
Thirty five (35) feet = Maximum height from base of structure to peak of structure as defined by survey indicating base line ground level previous to "improvement of property". Very unambiguous and lacking in superfluous BS. This in contrast to any and all other excuses for a fifty three (53) foot building defying the height restriction, which purpose is to keep the beachfront (relatively) unobstructed. If one needs to "shave a floor" off the building plan to comply, so be it. The notion that an exception for the unoccupied space constitutes a waiver of the ultimate height of the structure is not only ridiculous, it's an insult to the intelligence of the residents and contrary to the spirit of what the intended result is. It shouldn't take a five year study and an army of attorneys to figure it out. Ask any first year mechanical engineering student.