SEMINOLE — When Aaron and Jonie Greenwood, a couple from southern Illinois, bought a house overlooking Boca Ciega Bay last July, they moved in and decorated it like a vacation getaway. In the hallway, they hung a sign: "Life is great at the beach."
It was their aspirational home — a two-story house in tropical suburbia, in the right school district, with a pool and a porch. But the ultimate selling point was its location at the end of a brief canal that emptied into the bay, the fulfillment of a longtime wish to live on the water.
Then came the call from the woman who had sold them the house on 74th Avenue N in the Old Oakhurst neighborhood. Something about flood insurance rates changing as a result of a 2012 law. She encouraged them to go to a meeting to learn more.
Six weeks ago, they got the new numbers: the Greenwoods' $4,300 annual flood insurance premium would increase by about 900 percent. When their policy comes due next July, they will owe the federal government nearly $44,000, the highest documented flood insurance premium in Pinellas County.
"How could that even be possible?" Aaron Greenwood, 43, wondered at the time.
The explanation lies in the Biggert-Waters act, which was passed to stabilize the debt-plagued national flood insurance program by eliminating subsidies and raising rates. The law has turned places such as Pinellas into a battleground over whether the new rates are fair.
Of the 33,000 homes in Pinellas that are facing dramatic flood insurance rate increases, the Greenwoods' case stands out as an example of how exorbitant the new premiums can be.
The majority of Pinellas homeowners affected don't live on the water. The median value of their homes is $132,245, and the average size is 1,430 square feet. About 2,000 of the homes are owned by low-income seniors and people with disability exemptions.
The Greenwoods, who both work in the information technology industry, bought their 4,300-square-foot house for $628,000, pushing the limit of what they could afford. A $44,000 flood insurance premium was not part of their calculations.
Weeks after they learned about the rate increase, a question lingers: Should someone have warned them?
They'd bought their policy through Florida Best Quote, a Belleair Bluffs-based agency, where no one had mentioned an increase. Their agent, John Lawrenson, said he and other agents didn't get the new rates until late August, a few weeks before they went into effect. But at least one other insurance agency said its staff had the rate tables by late July, when the Greenwoods closed on their house.
Less than a year into owning their first home in Florida, their choices are limited. They could try to sell it, but buyers are scarce. They could default, but doing so would destroy their credit.
"If we have to walk away from this house, everything we've built over the past 20 years is shattered," said Jonie Greenwood, 40.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has placed their house into the riskiest flood category and estimates that if the area did flood, the water level would rise 7 feet higher than the base of their house.
The agency's bleak forecasts make little sense to the couple. The canal behind their house is so shallow that they can't put more than a small fishing boat into it. To their knowledge, the house has never flooded.
Even if the Greenwoods were able to afford an annual premium of $44,000, at most the federal flood insurance program will cover $250,000 of a home's value.
"Is FEMA suggesting that his house is going to be completely destroyed every 5 ½ years?" asked Pinellas County Property Appraiser Pam Dubov. "I can't vouch for their science. I wonder what they're doing, frankly."
Greenwood said his best hope is that a private insurance company such as Lloyd's of London, which already offers policies in Pinellas, will take them on. According to several insurance agents, if the Greenwoods take this route, their premium would still more than double, to about $9,100, which the couple say they can pay, though not happily. They don't expect that Congress will come to their rescue and suspend the rate increases.
They don't regret moving to Florida; they don't even regret buying on the water.
"Turn around and look out there," Aaron Greenwood said, gesturing westward, where the afternoon light was fading at the end of his dock. "Imagine on the other side of that white picket fence is the back of my neighbor's house."
If he'd wanted that, he would have stayed in Illinois.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.