South Florida lawmaker refiles bill to ease replacement of old coastal buildings
Image via Wiki Commons.

Supports say the measure will help prevent another tragedy like Surfside. Opponents argue it’ll destroy historic buildings.

One of the more contentious non-culture-war measures proposed in the Legislature last year is back in its original form — for now.

Miami Springs Republican Sen. Bryan Ávila is again sponsoring legislation (SB 1526) that would make it easier for private developers to raze and replace old buildings in storm-prone coastal areas across Florida.

Proponents of the measure, titled the “Resiliency and Safe Structures Act,” argued previously that it would improve safety by preventing local historic boards from obstructing the replacement of outdated, weather-worn structures at risk of collapse.

They cited, among other things, the deadly June 2021 collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo, a 40-year-old structure some scientists believe fell due to prolonged saltwater damage.

Two years after the collapse — the deadliest non-deliberate structural failure in U.S. history — at least 26 other buildings in the region were vacated for safety reasons. Most were near the coastline.

The measure’s detractors, meanwhile, said it would cause irreparable harm to the architectural character of some cities like Miami Beach, where locals have identified more than 2,600 structures as historically significant.

After undergoing several changes to carve out small cities, including Surfside and St. Augustine, from its impacts, Ávila’s bill last year cleared the Senate before stalling out on the House floor.

He refiled the measure without those amendments Friday, the last day bills could be filed in the Senate for the 2024 Session that starts next week.

But those prior changes will likely be added to the bill or improved upon by the time it reaches committee consideration, according to North Fort Myers Republican Rep. Spencer Roach, who will again carry the bill’s House companion.

“My understanding with Sen. Ávila, who I’ve worked very closely with, is that he submitted his bill as kind of a placeholder to get something filed by the deadline and then once I have my bill filed with all the changes and edits that have been requested by different cities and counties around the state, we’ll move forward with identical versions,” he told Florida Politics.

“We’ve worked for months with cities like St. Augustine to try to perfect the language and make it something all stakeholders are comfortable with, which is why it’s taken so long to file. Like I said last year, I think there’s a way to thread this needle and get a product that balances the concerns property owners have about utilizing their property to their fullest potential while also addressing worries these historic towns have about preserving their integrity and character.”

Miami Beach Commissioner Alex Fernandez, who sounded the alarm last year over the bill, said that he is “eager to constructively collaborate” with Ávila and Roach “to preserve the unique character and history” of Miami Beach.

But he still thinks the legislation is an overreach that could lead to many historically relevant buildings in the city — including the Betsy Hotel, Shore Club and all of Española Way — being torn down.

“While I respect the intentions behind the recently filed bill, most of our historic buildings would meet the definition of a qualifying structure for demolition, potentially resulting in sweeping implications for our historic districts,” he said by text. “This collection of historic buildings is the backbone of our economy and the housing for our workforce.”

By the time it died on the 58th day of Session last year, Ávila’s bill applied to structures near the coastline that don’t conform with National Flood Insurance Program requirements and are within Federal Emergency Management Agency flood zones.

If the owner of such a property wanted to tear down and build over it, the bill provided that no local government could stand in the way, provided the structure is not a single-family home, one of 50 or so sites in Florida on the National Register of Historic Places, or within a municipality that either has fewer than 10,000 residents or at least three buildings older than 200 years.

That last concession, which Ávila made late in the legislative process last year, excluded Surfside — an irony Miami Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo noted before the measure passed on the Senate floor in April.

“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 said larger cities like Miami Beach have more powerful bureaucracies that place an unreasonable number of buildings under protection from sensible safety regulations. Many structures in Miami Beach may be important to the municipality, he said, but “they cannot all be historic.”

Florida Politics contacted Ávila for comment but did not receive a response by press time.

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 [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.

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