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Pinellas coastal building oversight examined

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is investigating whether Pinellas communities thwarted coastal building rules, allowing property owners to ignore federal rules for building in a flood plain and granting variances for projects that didn't deserve them.

The shortcomings could increase flood insurance rates for policyholders countywide, though FEMA pledges to work with the communities to correct the problems.

"There were communities out there that perhaps were not as clean as we had hoped," said Brad Loar, branch chief for FEMA's Community Mitigation Program in the Atlanta regional office.

Loar visited Treasure Island on Wednesday to tell building officials about problems detected through on site visits and reviews of county and municipal records.

The meeting also drew officials from the Manatee, Sarasota and Pinellas county building departments, who knew that FEMA's review of their records had launched concerns about lax building standards throughout the Tampa Bay area.

FEMA has also reviewed Hillsborough County's enforcement of FEMA rules.

"I don't care if the building official allows it to happen or the elected officials allow it to happen or the variance board allows it to happen," Loar said. "It's the community's liability."

FEMA offers flood insurance discounts to residents of counties or municipalities that participate in the Community Rating System. Communities in this program agree to help FEMA enforce federal building rules.

Their Community Rating System score, and the flood insurance discount that accompanies it, is based on the communities' performance. Most areas of Pinellas receive a 10 or 15 percent discount.

Loar emphasized Wednesday that FEMA is looking at Tampa Bay communities because most have not been closely evaluated since they first became eligible for flood insurance discounts in the early to mid 1990s.

FEMA was also drawn to the area, particularly Pinellas County, because it is almost completely developed.

That means most flood plain construction involves remodeling, which triggers the difficult-to-enforce 50 percent rule. The rule forbids homeowners from spending more than half the value of their home on upgrades to it.

Though FEMA has not produced specific examples of violations, building officials admit that they commonly deal with developers who try to skirt the rules.

"When somebody comes in and wants to do an improvement on a structure, and I say no, the first thing they do is start looking for loopholes," said Mike Nadeau, the building official in Redington Shores.

"That happens every day around here," said George Fink, a former building official on the Pinellas beaches.

Dean Jarvis, a general contractor who teaches flood plain regulations at St. Petersburg College, said builders capitalize on the buildings officials' lack of enforcement of FEMA rules.

"If you're going to work in Pinellas County, you're going to take the 50 percent rule right to the edge," Jarvis said. "You're going to screw the rules. Everybody's in on it."

FEMA and the state Department of Community Affairs are reviewing 17 to 19 years' worth of Pinellas County building records. Loar said he was particularly concerned about the number of variances granted in the flood plain by county government.

"Normally we don't go back quite that far. If there's a pattern of problems, we'll go and take a look at it."