Senate passes coastal demolition bill with new exclusions for small cities

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Last-minute changes to the bill carve out cities like St. Augustine and Surfside, but not Miami Beach.

A bill that would erode local protections of historic buildings in storm-prone coastal areas across Florida has cleared the Senate after undergoing changes meant to cushion its impact on small cities.

Proponents say it will improve safety by preventing local historic boards from obstructing the replacement of old, weather-worn structures at risk of collapse.

Detractors of the measure (SB 1346), dubbed the “Resiliency and Safe Structures Act,” argue it will cause irreparable harm to the architectural character of some cities like Miami Beach, opening them up to an unprecedented redevelopment free-for-all.

Those concerns are overblown, according to Miami Springs Republican Sen. Bryan Ávila, the bill’s sponsor, who successfully amended his bill on the Senate floor to alleviate some criticism it’s received over the last couple weeks.

Contrary to what some suggested, he said, “Ocean Drive is not going to get bulldozed — that’s not going to happen.”

But that doesn’t mean every building a local historic board adds to its list is historically relevant, he continued, noting the more than 2,600 structures identified in Miami Beach’s historic preservation regulations as an example.

“And some of them, with that coastal erosion (and) natural disasters, become hazardous,” he said.

SB 1346 would allow private developers to demolish buildings in high-hazard coastal areas, including locally recognized historic sites, with limited interference by local governments.

The bill applies to structures that don’t conform with National Flood Insurance Program requirements for new construction that are both within Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood zones and either partially or wholly inside the seaward Coastal Construction Control Line, which is about a quarter-mile from the coastline.

Until the Senate approved Ávila’s amendment to the bill Friday, the language applied to all nonconforming properties in FEMA flood zones within a half-mile of the coast.

The bill would also apply to buildings determined unsafe by a local building official or ordered demolished by the local government under whose jurisdiction it falls.

After tearing the building down, developers would automatically be authorized to build a new structure on the site at the maximum height and density for which the area is zoned. Local governments would otherwise have little to no say in what the building looks like, including whether it’s a replication of the original structure.

The bill does not apply to single-family homes or sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are roughly 50 such sites in Florida, including eight in Miami Beach.

Ávila’s amendment also added new exceptions for nonconforming buildings in frequently flooded areas that stand in municipalities with at least three buildings older than 200 years or populations of 10,000 people or less.

Those concessions would exclude cities like St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, and Surfside, a town of fewer than 6,000 people that in June 2021 was the site of the deadliest non-deliberate structure engineering failure in U.S. history.

The bill would still leave Miami Beach’s historic structures and areas, including its Art Deco Historic District, Versace Mansion, Española Way and Delano Hotel, among many others, unprotected from potential razing.

That’s something of a paradox, Hollywood Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo said, considering Surfside and Miami Beach are right next to each other, and both contain buildings of similar age, composition and proximity to the ocean.

“Just saying 10,000 or fewer (residents) is completely inequitable when we have neighboring and contiguous cities. It’s just not fair,” he said. “If it’s about life safety — if it’s about unsafe structures and repetitive flooding and danger — shouldn’t it be uniform?”

Ávila explained that in learning about the issue, he determined larger cities tend to have more bureaucratic layers, some of which manifest in historic preservation boards to which local governments bestow too much power.

He successfully asked Senators to reject an amendment Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach proffered on behalf of Miami Gardens Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones, who was absent, that would have added language to the bill preserving the Miami Beach board’s ability to limit redevelopment of historic sites.

“What we’ve seen is that the larger cities have, for several reasons which I cannot necessarily speak to, given authority to some of the boards, particularly their historic preservation boards, (and) empowered these boards to essentially take punitive actions with owners who want to demolish an unsafe structure, even when the local building official says it’s unsafe, even when the local building department says it should be demolished,” Ávila said

“Even though these structures are important to the municipality, they cannot all be historic.”

SB 1346 and its House companion (HB 1317) by North Fort Myers Republican Rep. Spencer Roach are among nearly 60 bills filed this Legislative Session seeking to wrest more control of local regulatory oversight from counties and cities across Florida.

Some, including a measure banning local governments from enacting rent controls, even in declared states of emergency, have already received Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature. Others, including a bill that would allow businesses to sue local governments to stop the enforcement of ordinances they deem “arbitrary or unreasonable,” are close to passing through the Legislature.

Miami Beach preservation advocates have suggested developers at odds with city building strictures governing historic properties could be behind the legislation.

Among them: Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who backed a $1 million campaign last year to build a pair of towers exceeding local zoning limits, and 13th Floor Investments, a development firm that owns a vacant building in the city’s Art Deco district and gave $10,000 apiece to Ávila and Roach days before they filed their bills. Both parties denied involvement.

Until about two weeks ago, when Democratic Miami Beach Commissioner Alex Fernandez sounded the alarm about the “Resiliency and Safe Structures Act,” the measure had been quietly advancing this year amid a wave of attention-grabbing culture war measures. He has since worked to generate press coverage of the issue and traveled to Tallahassee multiple times to fight the bill.

Fernandez told Florida Politics that Miami Beach’s lobbyists have had “good conversations” with Roach, whom he described as “gracious with his time, attentive and understanding.”

“He’s been open to hearing all of these concerns and very willing to try to find solutions,” he said.

“His point to me was that from his end, from the House bill’s side of this, it is not targeting Miami Beach. It was not about destroying this community. I don’t know if that applies to the Senate bill, if it was crafted with the same intention. But I know that with the House bill, his intention was not to destroy Miami Beach architecture, erase our history and strip away American history.”

Fernandez this week wrote a letter to Miami Beach Republican Rep. Fabián Basabe, whose district covers Miami Beach, to schedule a Friday meeting on the matter. The two traded barbs recently after Basabe abstained from a vote on Florida’s new six-week abortion ban, for which he blamed Democrats, and voted in favor of bills restricting LGBTQ-inclusive instruction in public school and banning underage admission to adult live performances.

Basabe, who also opposes the coastal demolition legislation, initially agreed to Fernandez’s request to meet. But he later announced that his own efforts behind the scenes had all but led to the measure’s demise.

“The bill is dead,” he told Florida Politics. “The bill’s House sponsor and our state leadership considered the reservations of my district, after I presented environmental, infrastructure and density concerns along with further damage to our already volatile brand identity and the irreplaceable value of our historic integrity.”

As such, he said, the bill “will not move forward this Session.”

Asked to confirm that the legislation would not reach the Governor’s desk, Roach did not provide a direct answer.

“I believe the bill will pass off the Senate floor with bipartisan support this week, and then it will be sent to the House for consideration,” he said. “(As) the saying goes around here frequently, nothing is dead until Sine Die.”

After being asked to clarify whether he will bring Ávila’s bill forward for a vote once it reaches the House, Roach said, “I am certainly going to try.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at Jess[email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


3 comments

  • Rich Publix Cashier Ed 👍

    April 28, 2023 at 4:02 pm

    Downtown St. Augustine could use more than a few bulldozer runs…miles of dilapidated shacks instead of mixed use development, European style architecture. Shops on the bottom floor and residential on top. Need to expand mixed use development into Lincolnville and from the North end of St. George to the library. Buy it out, run them out, build back better. It’s too small. Just too small of an area looking nice.

  • Abu Musab Al Zarqawi

    April 28, 2023 at 4:04 pm

    This is a travesty, the GOP will rue having passed this bill. Retarded to the max.

  • Bulldoze Half of St Augustine

    April 28, 2023 at 5:10 pm

    Bulldoze half of St. Augustine and create Barcelona 2.0. Your great grandchildren will thank you. Otherwise, they’ll gaze upon you as neanderthals with poor culture and levels of civilization. Shacks and dilapidated homes from the 1930’s aren’t history. This is squallor and cultural stagnation.

Comments are closed.


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