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Protection for historic coastal properties could be gutted under Florida bill

Posted on May 1, 2023

A pair of related bills rapidly advancing through the Florida Legislature would eviscerate protections for historic buildings and districts in coastal areas across the state, allowing property owners and developers to bypass local regulations and bulldoze and redevelop much of Miami Beach, among many other places.

That would include the iconic Art Deco hotel row on Ocean Drive, as well as famed neighborhoods like Key West’s Old Town, the town of Palm Beach and Fernandina Beach.

The bills, HB 1317 and SB 1346, sponsored by Republicans Sen. Bryan Avila and Rep. Spencer Roach, are causing alarm among preservationists and municipal officials statewide, including shocked elected officials in St. Augustine — the oldest city in the United States — as they realize their potentially devastating implications. One preservation group in Miami Beach called the legislation “the end of historic preservation in coastal Florida.” Another critic likened it to “an atom bomb.”

“It’s one of the worst proposals I’ve ever seen,” said a livid state Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, a Republican whose district includes St. Augustine. “Everybody that cares about the characters of their coastal community should be concerned about it. They should be raising questions.”

The bills are the latest, and perhaps the most dramatic and consequential, examples of rapidly advancing, developer-friendly measures in the GOP-dominated Legislature that aim to supercharge development by preempting or overriding local zoning controls on everything from suburban sprawl to urban density.

The preservation preemption bills, which exempt single-family homes, would prohibit local officials from blocking the demolition of any other buildings, including those designated as historic, that sit within a half-mile of the Florida coast or within an extensive series of flood zones delineated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — if they don’t meet the U.S. agency’s standards for new construction. By definition, virtually no historic buildings conform to those rules.

Senate sponsor Avila, a Republican representing Northwest Miami-Dade, said the goal is to ensure resiliency of coastal communities by promoting the replacement of older buildings with new structures that meet up-to-date FEMA rules for flood and storm-surge resistance in order to obtain insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program. He and Roach insisted their bills are “narrowly tailored” to ease the way for construction of safer buildings under federal regulations that call for flood-resistant materials and elevated structures in vulnerable areas.

Roach, a North Fort Myers lawyer, said his bill was necessary because preservationists have for too long used their historic buildings “as a cudgel” to avoid replacing them with safer buildings.

He has met with local officials and is working on amendments when the bill comes up for a vote next week that he said will clarify that the measure is not intended to line Florida’s coast with more condominium canyons.

“I have told them I am not going to go down in history as the guy that puts a skyscraper in St. Augustine, in Miami’s Art Deco district, in Palm Beach or in Pensacola,” he said in an interview Monday. “That is not the intent of the bill and the narrow language is designed to prevent that.”

Potential demolition derby?

But critics say the bills are anything but narrow. They say the bills, which contain no analysis of impact, are so broadly written that the result will be a demolition derby as developers seize the chance to tear down historic buildings to clear and flip properties — a common practice in older areas poised for redevelopment known as speculative demolition. They say the measures could be destructive for the historic fabric of their communities, and their economies.

The bills would give property owners the right to demolish any building for any reason in the designated zones without so much as a public hearing, with the exception of a relative few listed on the National Register of Historic Places, an honorary designation that by itself confers no protections.

Because many of the state’s oldest and historic neighborhoods and districts sit along the coast, the bills if approved would open tens of thousands of structures now protected as landmarks under local ordinances to potential demolition. Advocates say 84 local jurisdictions across the state have historic preservation programs.

The bills also prevent those local jurisdictions from limiting the scale of replacement buildings to conform to historic neighborhood scale, or requiring that they replicate or preserve some historic elements, though the new structures must still meet local zoning rules. In practice, that would mean in many, if not most cases, that developers will be able to build bigger, denser replacement structures, putting potentially thousands of new residents in high-hazard flood zones, critics say.

Another section of the bills would allow demolition of any building anywhere in the state, even if designated as historic, that a local building official has declared unsafe — even though procedures to do so already exist.

The measures also would prohibit local officials from requiring that a historic building an owner has allowed to slide into ruin replicate all or a portion of the original if it has to be torn down, or to limit the new structure to historic scale. The target is ordinances passed by many municipalities, including Miami Beach, designed to discourage owners of historic buildings from engaging in what’s known as “demolition by neglect.”

Lifting those rules, critics say, will again encourage property owners to allow historic buildings to fall into disrepair in order to obtain an order to demolish.

“This is a very dangerous bill, and it is full-steam ahead,” Miami Beach Commissioner Alex Fernandez said. “It is a train that is going to wreck our historic districts. It has nothing to do with resiliency. It has to do with the resiliency of the profits of big developers. Building bigger buildings does not do anything for resiliency. This bill is all about circumventing our historic preservation regulations. That could not be more clear.”

“Canceling Miami Beach”

Virtually all of low-lying Miami Beach — famed for historic neighborhoods and hotels that draw millions of tourists — sits within the zones affected by the bills. City officials estimate the bills would expose as many as 2,600 buildings that are now protected as historic or architectural landmarks to demolition with no appeal.

“It sounds like a targeted, sweeping bill canceling Miami Beach,” said Daniel Ciraldo, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, the group that spearheaded creation of the city’s first historic districts decades ago under the leadership of activist Barbara Capitman. “Here, 40 years-plus of preservation goes down the drain.

“Ocean Drive is like our city’s postcard. Under this bill, these buildings would be considered automatically nonconforming and subject to demolition. Someone could file a paper, process it at the city, and here come the bulldozers. It’s very scary.”


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