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Flood zone police come a-calling with bad news

Prodded by FEMA, St. Pete Beach points a finger at 50 homeowners. Some point right back.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 27, 2003

ST. PETE BEACH - Lori McCool loves the amenities of her home's downstairs space. She has enough room for a pool table, and the bathroom off the swimming pool is a good spot for her children to dry off before traipsing across the hardwood floors upstairs.

But McCool's downstairs isn't just convenient. She recently learned it's also illegal.

The city of St. Pete Beach, under pressure from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has ordered her to remove all the finishing touches that make the downstairs more than the garage and storage area it's supposed to be.

McCool is one of about 50 property owners who have received letters from the city, informing them that their homes violate local ordinances that allow St. Pete Beach residents to qualify for the National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA brought the problems to the city's attention last year after visiting the community and discovering lax enforcement of flood prevention rules in St. Pete Beach.

Other communities could face the same scrutiny, as FEMA officials plan to visit St. Petersburg soon and will also visit other coastal communities in Pinellas. "We'll be in touch," said Brad Loar, regional chief of FEMA's Community Mitigation Programs Branch.

In St. Pete Beach, FEMA pointed out a myriad of problems for the city to address, from shortcomings in the local ordinance that oversees building in the flood zone to remodels that do not conform to FEMA guidelines. St. Pete Beach Building Services Administrator Jerry Sparks has proposed changes to the ordinance and is waiting for FEMA to review them.

"Here, it was very casual and relaxed for an extended period of time," said Sparks, who took his job last month. "It's finally caught up with St. Pete Beach, but it's also caught up with all of the west coast of Florida."

The problem at McCool's house probably lurks behind hundreds of other garage doors in coastal Pinellas County. FEMA guidelines for some portions of the barrier islands and other coastal areas indicate how high the lowest level of living space must be. The area underneath that lowest level may be used only for vehicle parking, building access and limited storage.

But in the privacy of their garages, homeowners often add finished walls for an office or rec room. Some have music or art studios, exercise rooms, spare bathrooms or bedrooms - all in areas FEMA declares off-limits.

"People think, "I've got this big room. Why can't I put a bathroom down here? Well, I'm going to do it anyway. It's my house,' " said Dean Jarvis, a contractor who teaches a course on flood plain regulations at St. Petersburg College. Jarvis often used St. Pete Beach in his class examples of poor FEMA enforcement, which helped attract FEMA's attention to the beach city.

At least two of the property owners who received letters from Sparks have hired attorneys. Linda Hamm, who lives in the Don CeSar Place neighborhood, called the correspondence from the building services administrator "the letter that told me to hollow out my house."

She said the city made her feel that she and her husband had cheated the system, when the city had actually approved the project at every step.

"It was all done with St. Pete Beach right there," Hamm said. "Nothing was ever slipped past them. I'm not going to sit by and let this happen when we have done nothing wrong."

As McCool's case demonstrates, the problems are exacerbated when homes are sold.

She bought her waterfront house in the Vina Del Mar neighborhood in 2001, and the appraisal of her home included 900 square feet of livable space on the ground floor.

The realization that the space is illegal has thrown many of her plans into disarray. The $525,000 she used to purchase the home came from the estate of her mother, who died two years ago, and McCool fears she misspent the money her schoolteacher mother spent a lifetime saving.

She had planned to take out a home equity loan to pay for her daughter to start college next year, but now that she is unsure that her home is worth what she paid for it, she applied for a federal student loan instead.

McCool is furious and hunting for an attorney. She questions how this happened in Florida, where real estate agents and homeowners are required to disclose problems with a house.

"The Realtors ignored it, and the seller misrepresented it," McCool said. "It's a living, breathing example that just because they have to look out for you, it doesn't mean they will."

Michael Seimetz, of Coldwell Banker in St. Pete Beach, was McCool's real estate agent. He said he is stunned the city is putting residents like McCool in this position.

"It's shocking to think that the city can go back in and talk to innocent property owners," Seimetz said. "In this case, Lori did nothing wrong. She just bought the house."

Seimetz also said he doesn't think it was his job as a real estate agent to enforce FEMA rules.

"Realtors are not meant to be policemen," he said. "That's why you have building officials."

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