Sunday, April 5, 2009

Residents hope for amnesty on enclosures

This issue has been a concern for property owners for quite sometime, with most wondering the the proverbial other show was going to drop. For many of these properties to conform, they would have to make substantial adjustments that could dramatically effect the value of their properties.
I saw this article in that really summed it up well.

"Residents hope for amnesty on enclosures
By TIMOTHY O'HARA Citizen Staff
Caught in the middle. That's how many homeowners feel about Monroe County's downstairs-enclosure inspection program for homes in the federal flood plain.
The county for years gave mixed signals to people who wanted to use their downstairs enclosures for living space. Officials allowed some as nonconforming structures or turned a blind eye to bedrooms and living rooms built below stilted homes, property owners and their attorneys have said.
By 2002, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had grown frustrated with the county's lack of enforcement and threatened to omit the Florida Keys from the National Flood Insurance Program if the county did not stop allowing downstairs enclosures and started requiring inspections.
The county obliged and now requires that downstairs enclosures be used only for storage space. The county also requires an inspection when property owners pull building permits or sell their property.
The move means many people are ripping out enclosures and losing thousands of dollars in equity and living area. Other homeowners are not pulling permits because they don't want to have to rip out their enclosures, which means they are not making crucial repairs to their homes or they are making the modifications without the proper permits, which means the work is being done without insurance or oversight.
To resolve the issue, the Monroe County Commission now is asking FEMA for "amnesty" for all property owners who have had enclosures on their property prior to March 14, 2002, which marks the county's start of the inspection program, according to a resolution unanimously passed by the commission last month.
The county has proposed giving amnesty, but will charge a fee that will go toward debris removal in the event of a hurricane or tropical storm. This is the first time since 2001 the county has sent an official request for FEMA to develop a different strategy for addressing downstairs enclosures.
Case in point
Amnesty would be welcomed by the owners of the Key Deer Run Inn on Big Pine Key. Bed-and-breakfast owners Harry Apel and his fiancee, Jennifer DeMaria, are among hundreds of Keys property owners who are caught in the middle of the downstairs-enclosure issue.
The couple relocated to the Keys from New Jersey after they bought the one-acre commercial property in May 2006. It has a downstairs enclosure that encompasses three units, they said. The couple did not realize the units were prohibited by FEMA until recently, when they tried to make the bed and breakfast more environmentally friendly by installing solar panels.
"We were never told that they were illegal," DeMaria said.
Their contractor tried to obtain the county-issued building permits for the roughly $70,000 job, only to find that the property must be inspected for downstairs enclosures. The couple now fears they are going to have to tear out three of the four transient units on their property.
They argue the units have been there since the house was built in 1979. The units are no secret, as the county had been on their property dating back to 1987, when the previous owners were embroiled in a legal battle with the county about whether bed and breakfasts were allowed in that area, DeMaria said.
"When the county sued the prior owner in 1987, they should have spoken then or forever hold their peace on the enclosure issue," DeMaria said. "They cannot split their causes of action 21 years after they lost their case on this same property."
Most recently, county building officials were on the property in 2004, when the previous owners applied for a building permit to install an elevator.
"You can't go on that property without seeing the units," DeMaria said. "The county had been here multiple times before. The county has known for 21 years that there are units down there."
The couple will not be given a permit until an inspection is complete, DeMaria said.
When they bought the property, they did not get the required downstairs enclosure inspection, saying they were unaware they needed one. If they had, county officials would have told them the units were not legal, County Growth Management Director Andrew Trivette said. The house was completed in 1983, and records show the enclosure was not in the plans.
"It is a very unfortunate situation that they are in," Trivette said. "I have researched myself to try and find some kind of easy resolution because we really are about compliance instead of enforcement. I nor my staff can find a way out for them. They are going to have to have an inspection."
Back and forth
Court rulings have convoluted the issue.
In 2004, a local court ruling stipulated the county could not enforce downstairs-enclosure regulations because the statute of limitations had run out on the properties. The court ruling was later overturned, further complicating the matter.
Another recent ruling said the statute of limitations expired, so the county cannot require the units be torn out. But in November, Circuit Judge David Audlin reversed that, saying the county waited too long to cite a Big Pine Key home-owner, and the county could not pinpoint when the violation occurred. The enclosure had been in place since at least 1983, but the county did not cite the owner until June 2007. The county has since appealed that case.
The house, owned by Sandra Carter, was built in 1975 or 1976, and the enclosure was built about the same time, said attorney Lee Rohe, who represents Carter. She bought the home from her uncle in August 2001. Carter left debris in front of her house two years ago, drawing the attention of a Code Enforcement officer, who noticed a welcome mat, air conditioning unit and other items there, Rohe said.
A Code Enforcement judge later found Carter guilty of violating downstairs enclosure rules, and she appealed in circuit court.
Citizens not Serfs
Such issues spawned the creation of a grass-roots property rights group called Citizens not Serfs. The group formed last year to bring awareness to the issue and come up with a solution that would allow enclosures that are already in place. The group, which has rented billboards across the Keys chastising FEMA, has taken the issue further than any other group in recent years.
The group regularly holds public meetings. Rep. Ron Saunders and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have attended in the past and have offered their support on the issue.
It has successfully lobbied County Mayor George Neugent and County Commissioner Mario Di Gennaro, who have attended the group's meetings, to ask FEMA to change its current policies. Di Gennaro and Neugent both had a hand in coming up with the amnesty proposal.
"We are trying to work together to get some relief for these homeowners who are affected by this," Di Gennaro said. "There has to be some flexibility with this. This is not the time to have people ripping units out of their homes. People cannot afford this right now."
In the past year, the county has tried to address the issue, while at the same time not jeopardize coverage by the National Flood Insurance Program.
Monroe County has participated in the National Flood Program since 1975. The county has to follow guidelines set down by the federal government to participate. Until 1983, the county allowed "convenience baths and recreational rooms," because the county did not consider the rooms "habitational," Trivette said. The units were considered a nonconforming use, which meant they were allowed. In 1986, the county implemented a land-use policy that allowed enclosures of 299 square feet for storage space.
Shortly after the County Commission passed the resolution to ask for amnesty, Neugent and the director of Citizens not Serfs met with a FEMA official and State Emergency Management Mitigation Chief Miles Anderson to discuss modifying the inspection program. Nothing was decided, but the mayor and FEMA Flood and Mitigation Division's Brad Loar agreed to meet later this month to hash out an agreement.
Two FEMA representatives will attend that meeting. The agency would not comment on the merits of the proposal, saying they did not know the details of the resolution, despite The Citizen sending it a copy on Monday.
"It would be premature to comment on that meeting at this time," spokeswoman Margaret Cottrill said."
Want to know the ins and outs of real estate in the Keys?
Put the expert to work for you!
Please visit for all of your Keys real estate needs!
Click here:
For a quick Search of available Properties in the Florida Keys, click here: Keys MLS Search.

No comments:

Post a Comment