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Rule change permits state to set standards

Chapter 39 could limit state intervention in construction rules. But a county board gutted the rule almost a year ago.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


For months, a group of homeowners, politicians and local experts have fought the clock and a powerful state agency, trying to fend off a new layer of government regulation that would change the way buildings are built along the beaches.

All beach communities want to keep the Department of Environmental Protection from having a bigger role in deciding where and how construction can occur along their coasts.

Beach officials thought they had found the simplest tool to win their fight: a county rule that set those standards at the county level, leaving the state out of the mix. It is called Chapter 39, and it has been around for 21 years. If the county rules were strict enough, the state might not step in.

But Chapter 39 was gutted 11 months ago by a county board led by a St. Pete Beach developer, at the urging of the building official in St. Pete Beach, who says the law unnecessarily forced property owners to follow local rules not required by the state or federal governments.

Members of a committee assembled by the Barrier Islands Government Council, or BIG-C, which represents all the beach cities and towns except Clearwater, fear that a weakened Chapter 39 means the state will indeed intervene and control construction on almost all land west of Gulf Boulevard.

"I never thought 39 was that significant until they amended it to emasculate it," said John Robertson, the mayor of Belleair Shore. "We can't go to the DEP unless the (Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board) is willing to reinstitute 39 with all its teeth. Clearly, I think this was very short-sighted of them."

Chapter 39 was a stumbling block for several St. Pete Beach projects, including the city-owned Honor Walk, an out-building for the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa, a Pass-a-Grille home that has won regional design awards and the city's old plans to renovate its city hall.

Robertson and others think the biggest beach city used its influence to change the law.

"St. Pete Beach is a big, powerful town," he said.

Michael Knotek, the building official who now also heads the city's community services department, discounts the claim, especially the questions about the city's relationship with Paul Skipper, a St. Pete Beach developer who heads the county board that changed the law.

Skipper is also the builder who donated land to the city for a new city hall, in exchange for a $2.88-million contract to build the facility.

Among several other changes, the amendments Skipper's board made to Chapter 39 essentially made it possible for property owners to avoid building homes on expensive 15-foot pilings or mat foundations. Instead, they can use "shallow spread footers," a type of foundation found in non-coastal neighborhoods.

The relaxed restrictions could reduce the cost of building or raising a beach house by 20 percent or more, depending on the quality of the soil on the property. As long as property owners have their plans approved by an engineer, they can avoid the old rules laid out in Chapter 39.

The result, critics say, is that some property owners are being held to the lowest beach building standards in 20 years, and people are more likely to seek out engineers willing to certify plans with fewer hurricane protections.

Knotek, who encouraged the changes, said cities can still question engineers' drawings.

"The building official still has the authority to review the plans and to reject them, even though an engineer has provided them," said Knotek, the building official.

Indian Rocks Beach City Manager Tom Brobeil said it is "dangerous and volatile" for a building official to reject plans that are certified by an engineer. Knotek agreed that process can be tricky, but said it is the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation's job, not a local building official's, to oversee engineers in Florida.

The group assembled by the BIG-C is called the Technical Advisory Committee, and it has made some strides in questioning how DEP set up its proposed new jurisdictional line, called the Coastal Construction Control Line. The DEP's current schedule calls for the line to be approved in February, almost a year behind the agency's original schedule.

The current DEP line, established in 1979, hugs the waterfront and has few implications for property owners. The new line, however, cuts more or less down Gulf Boulevard, throwing an estimated $2.8-billion of beachfront property into non-compliance.

Any new construction seaward of the line must be built to the strictest standards yet on the beaches and obtain state DEP permits, which can be a lengthy and expensive process.

To combat DEP, members of the local group picked apart the agency's science. They wrote letters to the governor. They read through state files that hadn't been touched in more than 20 years, looking for a way to prevent DEP from tightening its grip on the Pinellas coast.

They thought they had found an answer in Chapter 39. "If the county has a set of regulations that serve the same purpose, DEP can choose not to tighten its regulations," said Brobeil, the Indian Rocks Beach city manager. "It was our hope that we could say Chapter 39 does that."

According to a 1976 report from a hearing officer who presided over the Department of Natural Resources' control line public hearings, changes in Chapter 39 can have serious ramifications for Pinellas County. The DNR was the precursor to DEP.

The hearing officer, Jack Pierce, wrote that if Chapter 39 was "repealed or amended to make it less strict, then it should be conclusively presumed that . . . the local governmental entity involved will be considered as having officially requested in writing for the DNR to immediately review the Coastal Construction Control Line."

So far, the Big-C's committee has had little luck persuading the county's construction licensing board to reconsider the changes it made to Chapter 39. Some members of that board say the Florida Building Code, which could come into effect in July 2001, would make the whole discussion moot.

The committee disagrees, saying Chapter 39 provided stricter and more specific standards than the statewide building code.

At a recent meeting of the licensing board, the committee and members of the Beach Building Officials Association asked the construction licensing board to reinstate Chapter 39. But the board was affronted by the tone of a letter from the Beach Building Officials Association, which said the board "consistently and repeatedly caved in to special interests and personal agendas."

Skipper brushed aside the letter, saying, "You have to look at the group that it came from." Later, Skipper described the Beach Building Officials Association as a "rogue" and "splinter" organization and called a separate organization of Pinellas building officials the "real" building officials association.

A draft of the letter, never sent to the construction licensing board, was even more explicit, specifically accusing the board of catering to St. Pete Beach.

The board was divided on whether it even wanted to appoint its own committee to review the matter, but the majority favored setting up a committee. Skipper will appoint its members.

The board, made up of contractors, building officials and other construction experts, changed Chapter 39 because it believed the law would be unnecessary when new state and federal regulations came into effect.

When the board approved the changes, it thought a revised DEP Coastal Construction Control Line and revamped Federal Emergency Management Administration flood maps would be approved in a few weeks.

Instead, more than a year has passed, and neither DEP nor FEMA has put new regulations in place. As a result, operating without the local Chapter 39 has left the beach cities "sitting out here naked for 11 months," said Indian Rocks Beach building official Mike Nadeau.

Knotek said he might support reinstating Chapter 39 if it would make a difference in the beach cities' dispute with DEP. But he resents the implications that the construction licensing board gutted the law to accommodate St. Pete Beach.

He simply wants to protect city residents' property rights, he said.

"I came to the conclusion this is really an additional burden to the citizens of St. Pete Beach," Knotek said. "You have to follow 15,000 rules just to build something."

But Chapter 39, says the group trying to keep DEP from expanding its authority in Pinellas, is one rule worth saving.

Brobeil of Indian Rocks Beach said its repeal "kind of took our wind out of our sails."

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