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Coastal home rules closer to reality

After clearing the Senate, new building codes requiring storm protection are expected to be approved by the House today.

By KYLE PARKS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Legislature on Wednesday moved closer to passing the state's first building code, which would require new coastal homes to have storm protections such as impact-resistant windows or protective shutters.

The Senate unanimously passed legislation creating the new code Wednesday, and the House is expected to pass a similar measure today.

If Gov. Jeb Bush signs the bill, as expected, newly constructed homes, apartments and office buildings in many coastal areas would be required to be built with storm shutters or special windows designed to withstand windborne objects such as rocks or branches. The code would take effect in July 2001.

Shutter systems for homes often cost more than $2,000, while impact-resistant windows are even more expensive -- they cost more than twice as much as regular windows.

In the Tampa Bay area, the rules would be enforced in almost all of Pinellas County and in a significant part of Pasco. Citrus, Hernando and Hillsborough counties wouldn't be affected as much.

"We will have the toughest code in the country," said Sen. Charlie Clary, R-Destin, who helped reach compromises on a number of disagreements between the homebuilding and insurance industries. "The rest of the country will be using Florida as an example of how to do things right."

Florida's new code would be the second of its type in the country. New York, which passed less stringent measures, was first. Now, a number of other coastal states are considering similar legislation.

To gauge the costs involved, the Florida Home Builders Association and the state plan to build 12 test homes that follow the new standards. A similar project is already under way in Pinellas, where a national group is building three homes priced from $150,000 to more than $500,000.

Impact-resistant windows for the $150,000 home are expected to cost as much as $7,000, while windows in the top-of-the-line home could cost as much as $12,000. That's more than double the price of regular windows.

But the legislation also has some good news for home buyers: It requires Florida insurers to give discounts for homes built with storm-protection features. Discounts could be as much as 10 percent of a homeowner's windstorm premium, said Sam Miller of the Florida Insurance Council, and some pay as much as $1,000 for such coverage.

That promise was key in resolving the intense debate about how tough the coastal rules should be and where they should be enforced.

Home builders have argued that tough rules are only needed in South Florida, a hurricane-prone area that has already passed local restrictions. They worry about increased costs, and they say stricter standards only benefit insurers, since residents are evacuated when a hurricane threatens.

The move for tougher coastal rules has been building for several years, led by insurers, after Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida in 1992. Insurers argue that losing your home is devastating, even if you are insured, and that strong houses protect residents trapped in their homes.

The insurers and home builders have been fighting for several years, first taking the debate before the Florida Building Commission. The legislation matches much of what the commission recommended in February.

In recent weeks, the home builders and insurers have worked together, though. In return for the promise of discounts by the insurers, the home builders agreed to a larger area for the coastal rules.

"This shows that compromises can work," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who helps run his family's home building business, Sabal Homes of Florida. "The code gives you options, whether it's windows or shutters. And if you want, you can strengthen the structure and avoid the window requirements."

Strengthening a home's structure to meet the law's requirements probably would be just as expensive as getting windows or shutters, though.

Sen. Jim Hargrett, D-Tampa, voiced concerns about the costs during debate, but lobbyists and legislators backing the measure didn't seem overly concerned. The bill passed the Senate unanimously.

Homeowners will have the option of less-expensive shutters if they don't want special windows, said Dick Wilhelm, a lobbyist who represents the laminated-window industry.

As a test of costs, he solicited bids for a 2,275-square-foot Orlando home. The cost for basic windows was $4,427, while impact-resistant windows cost $9,973. But regular windows and steel storm panels cost a relatively affordable $5,369, while regular windows and plywood sheets cost $6,990.

Also, Wilhelm said, people will be willing to pay extra. "Sen. Hargrett was asking about the effect on poor people, but what poor people build new homes on the water?" he asked.

Still, buyers of many new homes in Pinellas and Pasco relatively far from the water also will be affected.

The new restrictions are for areas deemed as risks for a storm with winds of 120 mph or higher, defined by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The boundary follows the state's coastline, closer to the water in some areas than others.

Some parts of the Tampa Bay area are included while others aren't. Only the southwest and northwest corners of Hillsborough are included, while the Pasco area is about 10 miles wide at the south end, but narrow at the north end.

Almost all of Pinellas is included, though a sliver of land in the northeast section might be exempted, depending on how exact boundaries are drawn.

In coastal counties not included in the 120-mph zone, such as Citrus and Hernando, the new rules will be in effect up to 1 mile inland.

Counties will draw exact boundaries using landmarks such as roads or waterways as guides. And they can expand the areas affected if they wish. For instance, Pinellas officials could include all of the county if they decided there's no reason to exempt one small section.

There had been talk of putting the new code into effect Jan. 1, but legislators and industry officials decided they need an extra six months to work out details.

For one thing, the Florida Building Commission will study amendments such as a rule requiring more power-surge protection in coastal homes. If the commission decides some provisions are a bad idea, it can recommend that the Legislature rescind them next spring.

Overall, the insurance industry got what it wanted with the new code, except for one sore point.

On Wednesday, Sen. Clary tacked on an amendment that exempts most of the Panhandle -- his home territory -- from the new coastal rules. The 120-mph zone includes much of the Panhandle, but west of Franklin County, tougher rules will only be enforced 1 mile inland.

"Most of the recent damage in the Panhandle has been from storm surges, not from wind," Clary said.

The same argument could be made in Pinellas, which hasn't had a direct hit from a hurricane since 1921, but the Panhandle got the only exemption.

-- Researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Tim Nickens and William Yardley contributed to this report.

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