Florida bill making it easier to demolish historic buildings heads to DeSantis

Some Tampa Bay legislators have raised concerns.
An art piece is pictured in front of the Faena Miami Beach on Nov. 12, 2022. The Faena is one of many historic Art Deco buildings in Miami Beach that would be more difficult to preserve under legislation heading to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
An art piece is pictured in front of the Faena Miami Beach on Nov. 12, 2022. The Faena is one of many historic Art Deco buildings in Miami Beach that would be more difficult to preserve under legislation heading to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis. [ PEDRO PORTAL | El Nuevo Herald ]
Published March 6|Updated March 10

Legislation giving developers more power to knock down historic buildings near Florida’s coast without interference from local governments is heading to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

The Florida House passed the measure on an 86-29 vote on Wednesday, despite objections from city officials and historic preservationists in Miami Beach who said the bill threatens to wipe out some of the city’s iconic art deco architecture. Lawmakers from the Tampa Bay area also raised concerns about the impact potential developments would have on vulnerable coastal communities.

The proposal has been retooled since last year, when similar legislation passed in the Senate before dying in the House amid an uproar from residents in Miami Beach and several other coastal communities.

Language that could soon be signed by the governor now would exempt St. Augustine, Key West, the town of Palm Beach and buildings along Ocean Drive in South Beach, House sponsor Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, said Tuesday during debate on the bill.

But many buildings in the Mid-Beach and North Beach neighborhoods of Miami Beach could still be affected. That includes art deco hotels along Collins Avenue like the Faena, Sherry Frontenac, Casablanca and Carillon.

The legislation would also limit the power of local historic preservation boards like the one in Miami Beach, which has the authority to dictate whether historic structures can be demolished and mandate that certain elements be preserved when structures are rebuilt. About 2,600 buildings in Miami Beach are part of locally designated historic districts.

Proponents of the bill say the changes are crucial to ensuring building safety and resiliency against flooding near Florida’s coast — and that local governments can sometimes frustrate that goal by preventing old structures from being knocked down.

“The problem we are trying to solve is that we have some local jurisdictions where the governing body — and sometimes this is even outsourced to a local historic board, which in some cases they are acting as a de facto zoning commission — (is) arbitrarily denying someone’s permit to demolish a structure and rebuild a new structure,” Roach said during Tuesday’s debate. “What we are trying to get rid of is the unfairness of a governing commission violating their own zoning standard arbitrarily and capriciously.”

Roach emphasized that his legislation doesn’t override local zoning requirements and that any new structure built in place of one that is demolished would need to conform to local regulations. (A different piece of legislation known as the Live Local Act, which became law last year and was revised during this year’s legislative session, does allow developers to sidestep local zoning if they agree to build workforce housing.)

Four House Republicans voted against the bill, including Fabian Basabe of Miami Beach and Linda Chaney of St. Pete Beach. Several Miami-Dade and Tampa Democrats were also among the “no” votes: Christopher Benjamin and Felicia Robinson of Miami Gardens, Kevin Chambliss of Homestead, Ashley Gantt of Miami, Dotie Joseph of North Miami, Michele Rayner and Lindsay Cross of St. Petersburg, as well as Susan Valdes, Dianne Hart and Fentrice Driskell of Tampa.

Cross said Wednesday that she worries Roach’s bill will have a negative impact on coastal communities and unfairly force local governments to allow the maximum height and density permitted for new structures after an older building is torn down. She said cities should have been given more flexibility and an opportunity to show they are taking “commonsense steps” to protect against storms and flooding.

“Raising building standards for new construction is actually the right thing to do, but not everything needs to be built to the maximum height and building size,” Cross said.

Daniel Ciraldo, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, which advocates for preserving art deco structures in Miami Beach, said the bill is the latest example of Tallahassee lawmakers preempting local governments from making decisions about their own communities.

“We think that local community planning and consensus building is the best way to make your community resilient,” Ciraldo said in an interview Wednesday. “These folks in Tallahassee are writing laws that are impacting places around the state where they don’t live.”

What areas will be affected?

The legislation would apply to buildings that sit at least partially seaward of the state’s coastal construction control line, a boundary that hugs the coast and is meant to restrict construction near beaches. Such buildings could be subject to demolition in three cases: if they do not meet Federal Emergency Management Agency flood codes, are deemed unsafe by a local building official or are ordered to be demolished by a local government.

Exemptions from the new rules include single-family homes; buildings individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places, like the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach; buildings in historic districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places before 2000, like the Miami Beach Architectural District in South Beach; and buildings on barrier islands with fewer than 10,000 residents.

Last week, the Florida Senate approved the bill with just two “no” votes: Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, whose district includes parts of Miami Beach, and Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, and Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, did not vote.

Jones had proposed an amendment sought by the Miami Design Preservation League that would have removed the provision that says coastal buildings could be demolished if they don’t meet FEMA standards for flood-resistant materials and elevated structures in vulnerable areas. Preservationists say few historic buildings conform to those rules.

The Senate bill’s sponsor, Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, called the amendment “unfriendly” before it failed.

Miami Beach leaders push back

At a committee hearing last month, Miami Beach City Commissioner Alex Fernandez said the system the city has in place doesn’t need to be changed. Miami Beach officials have worked cooperatively with owners of historic buildings to revitalize several art deco gems, he noted, including a $500 million renovation of the Raleigh and an $85 million makeover of the Shelborne.

An amendment that would have allowed local governments to consider the impact of new development in a particular coastal area was voted down Tuesday. The sponsor of that proposal, Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, R-St. Johns, said demolition of coastal structures isn’t always the best approach.

“Building back bigger and stronger is not the best solution in all locations in our coastal high-hazard areas, but it is certainly a step ahead in some areas,” Stevenson said. “Intensive construction on our vulnerable coast is one of the reasons we are experiencing (high) insurance costs.”

Ciraldo, the Miami Design Preservation League director, acknowledged the legislation is “a lot more narrow” than a version originally proposed by Avila, which would have affected buildings within a half-mile of the coast rather than only those seaward of the coastal construction control line.

Still, Ciraldo said he is concerned the carve-outs and specifications in the bill are “arbitrary,” or perhaps aimed at benefiting particular developers. A nonprofit group called A Resilient Future Florida helped draft the legislation last year, according to records obtained by reporter Jason Garcia, and has hired a lobbying firm and donated $40,000 to political committees supporting Republican lawmakers.

It’s not clear who is funding the group, which was incorporated last March by Tallahassee elections attorney Natalie Kato and lists two Jacksonville residents, Joey McKinnon and Casey Hendershot, as its officers. All three have declined to answer questions about the entity.