Commissioner Smith calls for more ‘freeboard’ in new home construction on Siesta Key, but board majority opposes implementation of stricter county standards

Commission must approve new FEMA flood maps by late March 2024

This Aug. 30 photo shows flooding in the intersection of Beach Road and Columbus Boulevard on north Siesta Key, thanks to the effects of Hurricane Idalia. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During a Nov. 14 discussion that he had requested, Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith expressed concerns about new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps that he believes could put new barrier island homes in jeopardy from storm surge.

However, three of his colleagues made clear their hesitation to approve a stronger measure than the Florida Building Code allows. Commissioner Neil Rainford, especially, cited the extra expense that property owners would have to shoulder if the County Commission were to require a higher elevation for homes in the county’s flood zones.

As The Sarasota News Leader reported in late September, a county staff report provided to the board members in early August explained that the preliminary new FEMA maps would remove about 19,000 parcels with 2,400 structures from the county’s Special Flood Hazard Area. Numerous changes would affect Siesta Key, the report noted. Specifically, for those parcels, the preliminary information showed that the Base Flood Elevation would be lowered by 4 feet in the county’s AE flood zone. The county website says the AE zone includes areas subject to a 1% annual chance of inundation. “Mandatory flood insurance purchase requirements apply,” the website notes.

The report defines “Base Flood” as “a regulatory standard commonly referred to as a ‘100-year’ flood or ‘1% chance’ flood. Base Flood Elevation is the highest elevation of the water surface associated with Base Flood. Freeboard refers to an extra margin of protection that requires the lowest floor of a building to be one (or more) feet above Base Flood Elevation (BFE).”

During a Nov. 14 presentation to the commissioners, Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Department, explained that, since the August report was written, FEMA had issued what is called a Letter of Final Determination regarding the updated Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM). That occurred on Sept. 27, he said.

Accordingly, county staff has scheduled a Dec. 12 public hearing for the commissioners to adopt those maps. After the commissioners approve the related ordinance, Osterhoudt added, it would be forwarded to the Florida Department of Emergency Management for final review and then to FEMA for final approval. The new FEMA maps have to go in effect as of March 27, 2024, he said.

The primary issue for the discussion that day, as Osterhoudt made clear, was the “freeboard” requirement. One of his slides pointed out the following:

  • FEMA requires that, at a minimum, buildings must be elevated to the Base Flood Elevation.
  • “Freeboard” is additional height above Base Flood Elevation (BFE) that exceeds FEMA’s minimum requirement.

The Florida Building Code, Osterhoudt pointed out, calls for communities to adopt 1 foot of freeboard, at a minimum, for all occupiable buildings. “That is currently what Sarasota County has in its code,” he added.

This is one of the slides that Matt Osterhoudt showed the commissioners on Nov. 14. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moreover, he explained, the Community Rating System (CRS), in which the county participates to lower flood insurance costs for property owners, requires that communities adopt a minimum of at least 1 foot of freeboard for all occupiable buildings as a prerequisite for achieving a Class 8 rating or better.

As the FEMA website explains, “The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) Community Rating System (CRS) was implemented in 1990 as a voluntary program for recognizing and encouraging community floodplain management activities that exceed minimum NFIP standards. Any community fully compliant with NFIP floodplain management requirements may apply to join the CRS.”

The website adds, “Under the CRS, flood insurance premium rates are discounted to reward community actions that meet the three goals of the CRS”: the reduction of flood damage to insurable property; the strengthening and support of the insurance aspects of the NFIP, and encouraging “a comprehensive approach to floodplain management.”

If a community has a Class 8 rating, the website says, its residents living in Special Flood Hazard Areas are entitled to a 10% discount on their flood insurance premiums.

While the Florida Statutes authorize communities to adopt more stringent flood protection regulations, Osterhoudt pointed out on Nov. 14, the only community in the region that staff could find doing so is the City of Bradenton Beach. That municipality requires that structures in flood hazard areas, including those designated as A zones, “shall have the lowest floors elevated to or above the base flood elevation plus four (4) feet, or the design flood elevation, whichever is higher.” The A zone, FEMA notes, is an area “with a 1% chance of flooding and a 26% chance of flooding over the life of a 30-year mortgage.”

Osterhoudt also showed the commissioners a graphic depicting Sarasota County requirements for freeboard in the A Zone and the V zone.

The V Zone, FEMA explains, is a coastal area “with a 1% or greater chance of flooding and an additional hazard associated with storm waves. These areas have a 26% chance of flooding over the life of a 30‐year mortgage. No base flood elevations are shown within these zones.”

After presenting the commissioners the freeboard graphic, Osterhoudt showed them slides noting both the benefits and the implications of additional freeboard.

The benefits were as follows:

  • Reduction of flood risk to buildings.
  • The potential for lower flood insurance premiums.
  • “Reductions in flood insurance premiums can offset the cost of elevation.”
  • Extra points for the county in the CRS program for mandating higher standards.

The implications are the following, he said:

  • The increased cost of construction for affected buildings.
  • The creation of more non-conformities. Osterhoudt explained that that meant some buildings likely will have been constructed to a previous standard, making their height different from those erected with later standards.

No change in plans at this point

This slide provides examples regarding Base Flood Elevation and freeboard. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I think this is one of those things where we don’t want duplicity, that we should just stick with the Florida Building Code,” Commissioner Neil Rainford responded after Osterhoudt completed his remarks. “If it says 1 foot of freeboard,” Rainford added, “Stick with 1 foot.”

However, Commissioner Smith pointed out that his concern “is the fact that with FEMA lowering the Base Flood Elevation by a foot in areas, particularly Siesta Key, that we’re actually going to be encouraging people to build lower than they are right now.”
Yet another potential problem, Smith continued, is that he understands that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will not provide federal money to property owners to rebuild homes destroyed by a storm if the elevation of the first finished floor of the structure to be rebuilt was not at least 3 feet above the Base Flood Elevation.

When Smith asked whether Osterhoudt had investigated HUD’s regulations to that effect, Osterhoudt responded that he had no information about that, so staff would have to look into it.

Then Smith showed his colleagues and Osterhoudt a graphic that he had created, which depicted the existing FEMA Base Flood Elevation, compared to ground level, plus the existing freeboard. If FEMA drops the freeboard by a foot, Smith pointed out, and the county required 3 feet of Design Flood Elevation, “that would bring the new [first finished] floor up just 2 feet more than what is required by the Florida Building Code.” Thus, he said, the freeboard in the county still would be an extra foot higher.

This is the graphic that Commissioner Mark Smith created. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Yet, some areas would not be affected by the new maps, Chair Ron Cutsinger responded.

Staff could use the new FEMA maps to determine where to apply that extra freeboard, Smith told him. “I’m talking about the barrier islands, because they’re the most susceptible to flooding, at least from storm surge.”

Lowering the Base Flood Elevation on the barrier islands, Smith added, “is a bad idea, because we are going to be building new construction a foot lower than it is today, and storms aren’t getting weaker. … I’m trying to protect new construction as well as life, safety and welfare.” The latter three words refer to county policies calling for the commissioners to consider those points in deliberations regarding land-use petitions and issues.

In response to a question from Commissioner Michael Moran, Osterhoudt noted that the board members could just go ahead and approve the new maps, to go into effect by March 27, 2024, and then take action at a later date on the freeboard issue. “We just have to have the minimum done,” by that March date, Osterhoudt said.

“Any time I’ve had to sit here and you have to make policy decisions, the most healthy ones,” Moran responded, “are when you have public input. You might not like it sometimes … but it’s very healthy, as far as the process. Making a quick decision from the dais,” Moran added, “is not sitting well with me on this. … I want to know who it affects and … hear what they have to say about it.”

The Dec. 12 public hearing should provide the board members a lot of information on that latter point, Moran noted.

“I’m a three-and-a-half-decade insurance agent,” Moran continued. “It gets my attention when you’re talking about classes related to this,” he added, referring to the Community Rating System and the National Flood Insurance Program. “In the same breath,” Moran said, “I’m not interested in cramming things down people’s throats.”

Yet Rainford responded, “I would think, after these last floods that we’ve had, [the new FEMA maps are] probably more accurate than they’ve ever been.”

“They’re certainly [based on] the best available data,” Osterhoudt replied.

Then, after making certain that the Florida Building Code does call for 1 foot of freeboard, Rainford said, “I don’t know how we’re going to impose what I would consider a tax on someone” by requiring, for examples, “6-foot, 10-foot, 20-foot of additional elevation. FEMA’s already made their determination.”

Commissioner Neil Rainford. News Leader image

Moreover, Rainford continued, anyone who ever has tried to obtain fill dirt for a construction project, to raise the elevation of a new building, knows “that’s a huge expense.”

Commissioner Joe Neunder sought assurance from Osterhoudt that if the board members approved the new maps, that would not stop a person from building a home at a higher elevation.

“Right,” Osterhoudt said.

“I certainly understand where Commissioner Smith’s coming from,” Neunder added, “specifically for the barrier islands.” If he were building a home on one of the islands, Neunder continued, “I would want [it to be] higher, just in case, but I don’t think I want to be imposed upon if I decide to take that risk.”

“I’m very hesitant to move this forward, personally,” Chair Ron Cutsinger said. “It’s complex. … A lot of unanswered questions here.” He added that he was “going to be very, very careful” about implementing greater requirements, as they “might create … some unintended consequences.”

Osterhoudt again reminded the board members that they could approve the minimum requirements and then adopt more stringent ones at a future date.

The consensus at the end of the discussion for the majority of the commissioners was to proceed with the timeline Osterhoudt had laid out for adopting the new maps.