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Building code could get tougher

A plan in the Florida Legislature would add hurricane protections and cost to new homes.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Hurricane shutters or other high-wind protections would be required for new coastal homes throughout the state, under a new building code before the state Legislature.

A proposal before the state Senate would divide Florida at the 28th parallel, which goes through Palm Harbor in Pinellas County. To the north, the tough new building code would generally cover new homes only along the coast. To the south, it covers much of Pinellas and other coastal counties.

The code, designed to unify more than 400 local building codes, would require new homes and buildings to include hurricane shutters, impact-resistant glass or special internal construction designed to strengthen walls should windows shatter.

"Obviously it would be much more reasonable to either put the whole county in or the whole county out of it," Pinellas County Building Director Robert Nagin said of the dividing line. "There could be some argument as to where that line really lies."

State Sen. Charles Clary, an architect, said the hurricane protections could increase costs on a new home by as much as $15,000, a figure he said could prevent middle-income families from buying a house and "participating in the American dream."

As the Senate took up the bill Thursday, few lawmakers seemed familiar with the details of the plan.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican whose Palm Harbor district falls on the divide created by the Senate plan, said that the Senate bill is better than the House bill. The Building Commission began working on a statewide code more than a year ago, attempting to create one state code out of the many local government building codes across Florida.

The new code would deal with a wide range of building standards, but hurricane protections have become the most controversial.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has predicted coastal areas are particularly subject to "wind-borne debris" -- flying objects that can cause severe property damage when winds whip at 120 mph. Entire counties in South Florida -- including Dade and Broward -- are vulnerable, according to the society.

Currently, Pinellas requires that new construction withstand winds of 102 mph. Nagin said the county would aggressively enforce whatever plan the Legislature passes, but "there are so many versions out there I haven't even seen the latest one."

The House and the Senate differ over what to do north of the 28th parallel dividing line.

For the counties north of the line, including Pasco, Hernando and Citrus, the House plan would require the protections anywhere from 1 to 15 miles in from shore.

The Senate plan would require hurricane protections within 3 miles of the Gulf of Mexico in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. The western edge of coastal Hillsborough would fall under the new protections in both plans.

Around the Big Bend and in the Panhandle, the House and Senate plans differ sharply.

The Senate plan would require the protections for areas up to 1 mile from the coast.

The House is far more restrictive in the Panhandle, extending north all the way to the Alabama border in at least one county. The House plan closely follows recommendations made in February by the Florida Building Commission.

But Clary, a Republican from Destin and one of the sponsors of the Senate bill, said the House plan is too restrictive in the Panhandle, which he said has no history of suffering from the kinds of high winds that devastated Miami when Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992.

"History's shown us that we're doing the right thing," Clary said.

Rather than overreaching, Rep. Lee Constantine, a real estate consultant from Altamonte Springs, said the House plan is "historic."

Constantine said the new plan requires insurance companies to give discounts to homeowners who build according to the new protections, a benefit he said would help offset increased building costs.

"It gives Florida the highest standards in the nation," he said.

Constantine acknowledged that the House plan has "a greater impact in the Panhandle" and he did not rule out compromising with Clary to reduce that impact. "I want to get everybody in the corral," he said.

The Senate gave preliminary approval to its plan Thursday. The House is expected to do the same with its bill today. A spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush said the governor has not taken a position on the building code.

Both chambers would allow local governments to alter the state code to local needs, but only if the governments prove why they need to do so. The code also leaves intact, for at least a year, the strict regulations some South Florida counties have for approving new building materials.

Eventually, statewide regulations could override local ones.

The issue has pitted two powerful state industries, home builders and insurance companies, against one another.

Home builders, who say the new hurricane restrictions will increase the cost of new homes by anywhere from $200 to $15,000, want the rules to apply to as small an area as possible. The insurance industry, worried that shattered windows allow for unnecessary reimbursements for interior damage, want as much of the state as possible covered by the restrictions.

"They don't want to pay for that carpet getting wet," Wellington Meffert, lobbyist for the Florida Home Builders Association, said of the insurance companies.

But Sam Miller, vice-president of the Florida Insurance Council, said the new code "will be a significant savings in our losses that we will pass along to our customers."

Times staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

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