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FEMA raises storm over upgrades to beach home

Nancy Markoe's remodeled home jibes with the aesthetic of Pass-a-Grille. No one would argue that.

The question is whether it fits into the Federal Emergency Management Agency's rules for building on the coast.

FEMA, in its investigation of 127 St. Pete Beach properties suspected of violating the agency's building rules, has singled out Markoe's home and urged St. Pete Beach to quickly make plans to bring the structure into compliance.

"We recommend that the city staff be diligent in preventing other such structures from being noncompliant," wrote Brad Loar, chief of FEMA's Community Mitigation Programs Branch for the region that includes Florida.

Jerry Sparks, St. Pete Beach's building services administrator, questions why FEMA is focusing on the Markoe house. The city had expected to receive a report at the end of July on all 127 suspect properties; instead, it received a four-page, detailed analysis of one house four weeks ahead of time.

"Why just that one?" Sparks asked. The building official informed FEMA last week that he will not take action on the Markoe project until he receives the federal government's report on the other suspect properties.

Loar said FEMA decided to act immediately on the Markoe house because work is still under way, though Sparks said construction is ongoing at other structures on the list, too.

The problems with Markoe's home deal mostly with FEMA's 50 percent rule, which is intended to lead older homes to be elevated or torn down once they reach a certain stage of deterioration.

FEMA officials believe a cost breakdown provided by Markoe's contractor, Nachman Construction, intentionally underestimated the cost of improvements to circumscribe some FEMA requirements. Included in the breakdown was an estimate that replacing the windows of one of the homes would cost $300, and roofing would cost $1,200.

"A layman looking at these costs would say, "There's no way,' " Loar said from his Atlanta office. "It should lead some prudent individual to question these things, these really obvious things."

Markoe said Tuesday she is unsure where those cost estimates came from and will review the city's file on her home.

St. Pete Beach participates in FEMA's Community Rating System, a program designed to encourage better management of flood-prone areas. FEMA estimates that St. Pete Beach's participation in the program has saved property owners citywide more than $322,000 in flood insurance premiums each year since 1992. That's more than $46 per policy per year.

But the Community Rating System is for communities that manage their flood plains more strictly than federal guidelines mandate. In FEMA's initial investigation of St. Pete Beach last year, the city did not even meet minimum federal guidelines.

Markoe, whose new home connects two old beach homes with a new kitchen in between, owns the Nancy Markoe Gallery in St. Pete Beach's Pass-a-Grille neighborhood, the oldest settlement on Florida's West Coast. She is also chairman of St. Pete Beach's Future of the City Committee and was appointed to her post by former city Commissioner John Phillips.

Markoe, who owns four adjoining lots in Pass-a-Grille, points out that she could have built what many Pass-a-Grillians abhor: new, towering homes that meet FEMA guidelines and chip away at the ambience of the neighborhood.

She said she thought she was following the rules.

"I'm someone who just tried to do a good project. I didn't want to build up in the air. I wanted to preserve Pass-a-Grille," Markoe said. "I wanted to adhere to all of the rules, and we got the go-ahead from the city."

Indeed, former St. Pete Beach Building Official Mike Knotek signed off on Markoe's plans. Loar questions how they could have been approved.

Dean Jarvis, a contractor who teaches flood plain management courses at St. Petersburg College and has been critical of how St. Pete Beach enforces coastal building rules, said he's pleased FEMA is beginning a crackdown.

"Let's get a Class 3 hurricane going through St. Pete Beach," Jarvis said, "and let's see what everybody thinks of FEMA then."

Meanwhile, Sparks, the new building official, said he won't address FEMA's concerns until he receives reports on all the properties the federal agency is investigating.

"I was surprised by what appeared to be a very lengthy analysis of one of more than 100 potential substantial improvement projects that we have," Sparks said. "I wondered if they were going to be that thorough on all of them."