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Florida Senate approves bill to end local control of historic coastal properties

Senators amended the bill to exempt small cities.
 
Ocean Drive historic Art Deco hotels in Miami-Dade County.
Ocean Drive historic Art Deco hotels in Miami-Dade County.
Published April 28, 2023

Legislation that advocates say will gut historic preservation in Florida coastal communities such as Miami Beach moved forward on Friday after a change that would exempt small cities and buildings more than two centuries old.

The Senate voted 33-6 to approve the “Resiliency and Safe Structures Act,” SB 1346, a sweeping attempt to override local control over development by prohibiting local officials from blocking the demolition of buildings designated as unsafe, including certain historic buildings in communities with populations of over 10,000 people.

Alarmed preservationists have warned that the bill, sponsored by Sen. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah Gardens, will allow property owners and developers to bypass local regulations and let historic buildings fall into disrepair in coastal communities so that they can demolish the older buildings and redevelop the high-value real estate.

“Our most iconic historic oceanfront buildings, the backdrop of World War II American history, remain at greatest threat of demolition by this bill,” said Miami Beach Commissioner Alex Fernandez, after the bill was passed.

Avila told senators his goal was to preempt local government from “excessive” historic preservation rules. He said Miami Beach had designated 2,600 properties as historic “while the National Historic Register has designated seven.”

“Clearly, there is a big discrepancy between what the national register has considered historic and what the local historic board has deemed historic,” he said.

The legislation would give property owners the right to demolish any building for any reason in the designated zones, with the exception of those listed on the National Register of Historic Places, an honorary designation that by itself confers no protections.

Critics say the bill creates an incentive to tear down and replace currently safe buildings that have never been impacted by a storm or flood. Because many of the state’s oldest and historic neighborhoods and districts sit along the coast, they say if the legislation becomes law, it would open tens of thousands of structures now protected as landmarks under local ordinances to potential demolition.

Small communities exempt

Legislators said they received a stream of emails from residents around the state concerned that the broadly written provisions would bring an end to the historic charm of older coastal communities such as Key West, Palm Beach, St. Augustine, Fernandina Beach, St. Petersburg and Pensacola.

In an effort to address some of those concerns, the Senate approved an amendment offered by Avila that reduces the potential impact by including buildings that are within the coastal construction control line — the line the state uses to limit construction to protect beaches and coast — instead of within a half-mile of the coast. The amendment also excluded communities with fewer than 10,000 residents and buildings that are more than 200 years old.

“This only applies to nonconforming buildings which fail to meet FEMA standards,” Avila said. “If a building is in one of these situations it should be able to be rebuilt in a safe manner.”

The bill now exempts single-family homes and those on the National Historic Register. It would allow owners to demolish buildings, including those designated as historic, if at least a portion of the structure sits “seaward of the coastal construction control line,” is within an extensive series of flood zones delineated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the building doesn’t meet the FEMA standards for new construction.

Avila said the measure will also prevent local preservation boards from demanding that property owners rebuild their historic properties by either creating a replica “or they have to build to the same specs as that structure in the 1950s or 1960s.”

Daniel Ciraldo, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, said the amendment underscores the desire by Avila and other proponents of the bill to target Miami Beach.

“The coastal construction line amendment is the latest redlining attempt by Sen. Avila to cancel Miami Beach,” he said. “The line goes directly behind Ocean Drive’s iconic buildings, leaving them exposed to his targeted legislation that could lead to the loss of countless historic buildings on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue.”

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said she had received many emails from people concerned about the impact of the bill.

“Ocean Drive is not going to get bulldozed,” Avila responded. “That is not going to happen. We’re simply talking about structures that have been deemed unsafe by the local building officials, that have been deemed to be demolished by a local building department, and are in a FEMA flood zone area.”

Questions have been raised about who might be the immediate beneficiary of the legislation.

Public records show one local developer, 13th Floor Investments, which owns a vacant, historic designated Art Deco building on the Collins Avenue beachfront, gave $10,000 to a political action committee chaired by Avila one day before he filed the bill, and $10,000 three days later to the political committee of the House sponsor, Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers.

The real estate development and investment firm, led by partners Arnaud Karsenti and Rey Melendi, also has a contract to buy an adjacent vacant building. A spokesperson for the company said in a statement the political contributions to Avila and Roach were unrelated to the bills.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Hollywood Democrat who used to represent North Miami Beach, said that as the son of a developer, he is aware that sometimes local communities use historical preservation as an excuse to prevent development.

“When you tell me there is 2,600 of them within the confines of the city of Miami Beach that strikes me as excessive,” he said. But, he argued that Avila was using “a hammer on a bug.”

“The pendulum is swinging a little too far,” he said. “I don’t disagree with the philosophy of the bill … but there definitely needs to be a compromise.”

He quoted from a letter from Mayor A. J. Ryan IV of Dania Beach who urged the Legislature to reject the bill and allow local governments to address their own resiliency issues.

“As one of the cities affected by the 1,000-year storm event of 2023, the city of Dania Beach recognizes the effects of sea level rise and flooding,” Ryan wrote.

“The city knows that flooding is a serious issue that may require adaptation and resiliency changes to building codes. But these issues should not result in the destruction of home rule authority, nor should local history be destroyed out of a desire for expediency related to flooding issues rather than finding compromise in adaptation measures.”

The bill now heads to the House, where HB 1317 is expected to come up for a vote next week, the final week of the legislative session.

Staff writers Aaron Leibowitz and Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.

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