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FEMA questions county enforcement of flood laws

Federal regulators say Pinellas County is too lax in enforcing national flood laws, a dispute that could increase insurance prices for thousands of homeowners in unincorporated Pinellas.

County officials said Monday that they have interpreted flood rules correctly and that they will work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to resolve the problems without hurting homeowners.

"That's the worst-case scenario," said Paul Cassel, director of Pinellas' development review services department. "I hope that doesn't happen. That would be a very expensive proposition for folks in flood zones."

But regulators from FEMA have said the "serious and still unresolved" issues could threaten the county's participation in the National Flood Insurance Program. It also could endanger a 10 percent discount that county homeowners now receive on flood insurance.

Almost 32,000 property owners in unincorporated Pinellas hold national flood insurance policies. The federal government backs such insurance policies in more than 19,000 U.S. communities in which local governments agree to promote policies that reduce flood damage. Homeowners get a discount because Pinellas takes extra steps to minimize flood claims.

The federal agency has cited nearly 40 incidents in which the agency says homes had building code violations or where Pinellas officials incorrectly allowed homeowners an exemption to normal flood rules.

One case that FEMA cites is an exemption that Pinellas officials granted in 1990. The county allowed a man who injured his back to keep a workout room on his ground floor so he could do physical therapy. Under flood rules, the home wasn't supposed to have any living area on the ground floor.

"I think we're compassionate and sensitive to specific cases where maybe the guidelines should be relaxed," said Steve Spratt, the county's administrator.

FEMA also cited cases in which the county issued exemptions after finding similar rooms that were already built. Cassel said those cases generally had special circumstances, such as elderly residents or homeowners who discovered after they bought the house that the room wasn't supposed to be there.

Spratt wrote a letter to FEMA officials saying he was "dismayed" by FEMA's threat and "equally puzzled" that the agency did not seem to coordinate with the state's Division of Emergency Management. County officials said the state had similar concerns, but they were resolved last year after the county answered more questions.

Todd Davison, FEMA's regional director of the insurance program, was traveling Monday and could not be reached. Spokeswoman Mary Hudak said FEMA views such issues as serious but always tries to work with local governments to resolve them before the county's insurance status is hurt.

"Those are very extreme actions, ones that we haven't taken in years," she said.

Pinellas officials said FEMA's action against Pinellas pales in comparison to Monroe County. FEMA recently told homeowners there that flood insurance rates could rise in May unless the county gets a new flood plan approved. The agency says Monroe has 2,000 to 4,000 buildings that violate flood standards.

"We're probably more diligent in complying than some other counties," Spratt said. "Compared to Monroe and some of the others, we're Attila the Hun."

This house on Georgia Avenue in Crystal Beach was issued a variance after it was built to allow an illegal enclosure at 5.3 feet above sea level. FEMA says nothing in the area should be enclosed that is below 15 feet above sea level.

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