Florida legislature passes bill allowing demo of aging coastal buildings

Though some structures, including those on National Register, are protected, legislation opens the door to new waterfront construction

From left: Rep. Lindsay Cross, attorney Keith Poliakoff and Rep. Spencer Roach (Getty, Florida House of Representatives, Facebook)

Florida lawmakers approved a controversial bill that would make it easier to demolish some coastal buildings, many of which are aging, and redevelop the sites.

The proposed legislation pitted property owners and developers against preservationists who decried the potential demolition of structures that embody the old-Florida character, including buildings that have municipal historic designations.

The House on Wednesday approved the five-page bill with a 86-29 vote, a week after the Senate approved it with a 36-2 vote. The legislation does not become final until Gov. Ron DeSantis signs it. Florida lawmakers had considered a similar bill last year, though it didn’t pass at the time.

The bill allows the demolition of a coastal building if it meets one of three criteria: It is considered “nonconforming,” meaning it doesn’t meet the elevation requirement for new construction in the National Flood Insurance Program; or a municipal building official determined the structure is unsafe; or a municipality already has ordered demolition of the building.

Property owners can bypass public hearings and raze buildings only with administrative approval. Municipal employees have to OK a demolition as long as it is in line with state regulations such as the Florida Building Code and Life Safety Code. After that, a county or city has to allow for the redevelopment of the site with a new building that is as tall and as big as allowed on similar coastal sites that are in the same zoning district.

Some historic structures will be protected from the wrecking ball, though the legislation could open the door to demolition of buildings that only have municipal historic designation. Protected structures include those on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as those in historic districts listed on the National Register prior to 2000. Single-family homes and some buildings in small barrier island municipalities also are protected.

During a debate on the House floor this week, Rep. Spencer Roach, the bill’s sponsor, said the carve outs in the legislation protect buildings in several cities and areas of the state from being razed. This includes Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, as well as Palm BeachKey West, St. Augustine, Tampa and Pensacola.

Yet, the bill leaves multiple historic buildings in Miami Beach’s Mid-Beach and North Beach vulnerable to the wrecking ball.

“Ocean Drive is just part of it. We have the Collins Waterfront Historic District. We have the Morris Lapidus Historic District. Talk about an iconic architect,” Miami Beach commissioner Alex Fernandez said, adding that the bill incentivizes property owners to neglect their buildings so they can have them demolished.

The legislation would allow “the destruction of valuable historic assets along the oceanfront of Miami Beach that will never be replaced,” Fernandez said. These properties play a vital role in the history, culture and fabric of our community.”

Attorney Keith Poliakoff, who represents developers in land use and zoning matters, said the bill creates a streamlined process to resolve “blight” in some coastal areas due to aging structures that developers can’t reconfigure to meet the latest flood and resilience standards.

“This bill helps because now [property owners] can demolish instead of trying to figure out how to rehab a building that is 50 or 60 years old,” said Poliakoff, of Government Law Group, with offices in Fort Lauderdale and Delray Beach. “It allows a developer to get rid of the red tape and demolish an antiquated building.”

So far, knocking down these buildings or redeveloping them to current flood standards has proven difficult, he said. Amid the heightened threat of rising seas and storm surges, federal, state, county and city governments have enacted more stringent building regulations, including that buildings have to be elevated by 10 feet. And, the lower floors can’t be living space, but are restricted to commercial and parking uses.

All this means developers lose a “considerable amount of developable area,” Poliakoff said, adding that some cities put up “major hurdles” to coastal redevelopment “because they believe that those properties add character to their communities,” he said.

As a result, some aging coastal structures are “left fallow and dormant because developers do not have the funds to redevelop those properties under the new flood plain criteria,” Poliakoff said.

The bill imposes some restrictions on municipalities regarding the development of the sites with new buildings. Counties and cities can’t mandate that the demolished structure be replicated or require the preservation of any of its elements, or impose public hearings or construction requirements that are in addition to what is required for similar sites in the same zoning districts.

Rep. Lindsay Cross, of St. Petersburg, opposed the bill, raising questions as to whether it could allow for more density in coastal areas or hinder hurricane evacuations.

“For every older two-story motel that doesn’t meet standards for new development that is situated next to a 200-unit hotel, that modest-sized building can be replaced by another 200-bed hotel, increasing traffic, making hurricane evacuation more difficult, potentially increasing insurance rates and perpetuating a cycle of risk,” Cross said on the House floor on Wednesday. “Not everything needs to be built at the maximum height and building size.”

Cross also raised similar concerns during a debate on the bill on Tuesday.

At the time, Roach, of North Fort Myers, countered that following hurricanes, it’s generally newer buildings, constructed up to the latest codes, that are still standing and aging ones are damaged. And, he added, many coastal residents don’t evacuate during hurricanes.

“This happened in Fort Myers Beach and in many areas of Lee and Collier counties and unfortunately people did lose their lives,” Roach said during the debate. “If they are going to stay in their home, I want them to stay in the safest home they can possibly be in.… This isn’t going to allow a Trump Tower to be built in St. Augustine Beach.”

Regarding new construction allowed to the maximum permissible on similar parcels in the same zoning district, Roach added on Wednesday that this merely means that municipalities have to “treat property owners who live in the same zoning area equally.”

Article Link: Florida legislature passes bill allowing demo of aging coastal buildings
Author: Lidia Dinkova