County building and stormwater staff members clarify process for determining FEMA’s ’50-percent rule’

Discussion comes amid presentation about the updating of the county’s floodplain ordinance

An interactive map on the county's website enables people to check their floodplain designation. Image courtesy Sarasota County
An interactive map on the county’s website enables people to check their floodplain designation. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The topic was Sarasota County’s proposed new floodplain ordinance, which will be the focus of a Sept. 7 County Commission public hearing. Nonetheless, members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) zeroed in last week on an issue that has dominated discussions about home renovations on the barrier island for years: the “50-percent rule.”

With county Building Official Kathleen Croteau; Marty Duran, a county floodplain specialist; Robert Laura, a watershed engineer; and Kelly Westover, a stormwater engineer, present at the Aug. 4 SKA meeting, Siesta architect Mark Smith asked for clarification about the “50-percent rule” of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Smith pointed out that the rule does not allow a person to pay more than 50 percent of the appraised market value of a home in renovating the structure, unless the remodeling includes elevating it. The problem, he continued, is that people who may want to upgrade their kitchen, for example, also might feel the need to put on a new roof or install storm-resistant windows, thanks to the strong recommendation of their insurance company. The latter work, Smith added, “can be rather pricey.”

He asked whether the new county floodplain ordinance includes any provision for such home-hardening initiatives outside the parameters of the 50-percent rule.

“FEMA hasn’t changed its position,” Duran replied. Whenever a homeowner undertakes renovations — including improvements to safeguard a structure against storms — all the discretionary improvements must be considered part of one remodeling effort.

Marty Duran. Rachel Hackney photo
Marty Duran. Rachel Hackney photo

For example, Duran explained, if a person put on a new roof one year and then waited to upgrade his kitchen the next year, “we can’t allow phasing of improvements.” The projects would have to be considered together, he added, to determine whether the total expense exceeded 50 percent of the market value of the structure.

Croteau confirmed that. However, she said, if a homeowner renovated part of the house and then determined at a later time that he needed to install a new roof, county staff could consider those projects on an individual basis.

SKA member Dave Thomas then told the county staff members that he was advised in the 1990s that a homeowner could space projects out every five years to avoid the ramifications of the 50-percent rule.

“That’s actually not correct information,” Croteau said.

Duran reiterated that county permitting staff would have to consider the cumulative total of the improvements.

The ordinance changes

During her presentation about the floodplain ordinance, Croteau explained that the county’s maps had not been updated since the 1990s. Because the new maps will go into effect on Nov. 4, she pointed out, FEMA wanted county staff to undertake sufficient outreach to residents to make certain everyone understands the changes.

A document on the county’s website notes, “By showing the extent to which areas of the county and individual properties are at risk for flooding, the new maps will help guide financial protection, planning, investment, building, development and renovation decisions.” It adds, “Residents and business owners will understand their current flood risk and be able to make better decisions about insuring and protecting their property against floods.”

Building Official Kathleen Croteau. Rachel Hackney photo
Building Official Kathleen Croteau. Rachel Hackney photo

On May 4, FEMA granted its approval for the new maps to go into effect on Nov. 4, Croteau told about 40 people at the SKA meeting. Any property owner whose floodplain designation is changing should have received a postcard notification from the county, she said.

Because almost all of Siesta Key is in a high-risk flood zone, Croteau continued, “there aren’t many changes, if any,” on the island. The changes are concentrated in Venice and North Port, she pointed out.

The State of Florida also has a significant interest in seeing the county update its ordinance, she added, is because the local law does not have an “auto adopt clause.” Therefore, every time FEMA modifies its maps — typically every three years, she noted — the County Commission has to update the county ordinance to remain in compliance.

County personnel did send the current ordinance to the Florida Department of Emergency Management, Croteau said, so staff in that division could make certain the new law would meet the minimum participation requirements for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

Most of the modifications state staff recommended in the county ordinance were designed to make it easier to read, she pointed out. Additionally, because the county law did not have any references to the Florida Building Code, the county was required to add those. State staff wanted the floodplain ordinance and the Building Code “to complement each other,” Croteau explained.

Another modification pertains to a section titled “Areas Below the Lowest Horizontal Structural Member of the Lowest Floor.” Croteau pointed out that in certain “velocity zones,” the existing requirement in the county ordinance calls for the area of a breakaway wall enclosure below the ground floor of a structure to be limited to less than 300 feet. State Emergency Management officials wanted that changed to “no greater than 299 square feet.”

That will not affect the actions of county Building Department staff in dealing with new home construction, she noted.

When SKA board member Joe Volpe asked whether the new ordinance modifies requirements for the height of new structures in floodplains, Duran explained that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) sets the standard for construction seaward of the Coastal Construction Control Line (CCCL). “That far exceeds the design flood elevation [stipulated by FEMA].”

However, Laura pointed out that FEMA is updating its guidelines on the basis of new storm surge and wave analysis data. The preliminary set of revised FEMA maps probably will be available in about two years, he added.

On one other note, Croteau explained that although the state Emergency Management staff put together a model floodplain ordinance for communities to follow in crafting their own laws, county staff decided just to update the ordinance it had. Some inland areas of Florida had no floodplain ordinances, she pointed out, so the state model enabled them to save money by essentially “filling in the blanks.”

County staff is cognizant of the fact that “we have three barrier islands and a lot of low-lying areas involved,” which make Sarasota County a bit different from other communities, she added. “The state has encouraged us to adopt [that model], but we’re standing firm.” The County Commission in the past has expressed its support for that stance, she said.

A county webpage explains facets of updating the flood maps. Visit
A county webpage explains facets of the updating of the flood maps. Visit

Another change in the new ordinance deals with manufactured homes in existing subdivisions, she continued, though such housing does not exist on Siesta Key. County staff previously did not identify recreational vehicles (RVs) for floodplain regulation, Croteau noted, but “park models” have become more commonplace. Generally, she explained, those are 8 feet wide and 20 feet long; they are included in the new ordinance for minimum elevation requirements.

In response to an audience member’s question, Croteau explained than members of the public can visit the county’s website to check out their current and proposed flood zones. Software allows a person to layer the maps for comparisons, she said. However, if anyone has a question, the person may call the county’s Stormwater Division for assistance. The County Contact Center number is 861-5000.