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Maps to control beach building codes

(ran EAST, SOUTH, BEACH editions)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is returning to Pinellas after a two-year hiatus, and this time, it appears the maps they bring with them will be here to stay.

New FEMA maps are due in January. They will establish the predicted height of floodwaters during a hurricane and establish V-zones, the areas vulnerable to destructive waves where new houses must be built on pilings.

FEMA contends that the current Pinellas maps underestimate the coastal county's flooding risks.

The agency had hoped to see its revised maps approved two years ago, but Pinellas officials countered that FEMA was using antiquated technology to devise the maps. The county succeeded in pushing back the agency's plans until the county had time to research the issue itself.

Two years later, the county has spent more than $1-million on more modern technology, and FEMA is ready to move forward with approval of the new maps, which will require public hearings after the first of the year.

Until the maps are released, it is unclear whether the money the county paid for the new technology actually helped property owners in Pinellas.

The maps arrive at a time when the beaches are wrapping up a separate battle on another front.

After almost two years of battling the Department of Environmental Protection over its plans to take over more jurisdiction on the beaches, the coastal cities are days away from finalizing a negotiated deal that keeps the state's Coastal Construction Control Line where it is.

The state controls construction of everything seaward of the line, and the DEP had planned to move the line inland, imposing a more expensive and time-consuming state permitting process on people wanting to build.

In the compromise, the DEP agreed to keep its line where it is. In exchange, the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board had to reinstitute a law it dissolved last year that divides the barrier islands into zones and establishes standards for construction within those zones.

A new wrinkle in the negotiations, however, deals with those construction requirements. In the compromise, DEP agreed to acquiesce to the new FEMA standards for construction. But because the new FEMA maps are not yet released and must still go through public hearings, the control line agreement is in limbo.

Gene Chalecki, director of the state Office of Beaches and Coastal Systems in Tallahassee, said Friday that his agency no longer is willing to let the elevation requirements outlined in the negotiated agreement hinge on FEMA.

The agency has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 19 for approval of the revised control line it originally presented early last year. If the beaches and DEP do not reach a compromise by then, Chalecki said, the DEP likely will put a new control line in place Jan. 1.

"I don't believe the agency is receptive to any more delays," Chalecki said.

Still, Chalecki said he thinks the two sides will resolve their differences before Nov. 19. J.J. Beyrouti, the Redington Shores mayor who has led the beaches' negotiations with DEP, agreed.

"We all feel pretty cautiously optimistic," he said.