As flood risk rises in St. Petersburg, city weighs whether to allow increased development in flood zones

The St. Petersburg City Council will vote on whether to allow more housing in high-risk areas this fall.  [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
The St. Petersburg City Council will vote on whether to allow more housing in high-risk areas this fall. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published July 26, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The risk of flood damage is on the rise in the city. So is the number of new construction projects, including in flood zones. Soon, the city will be forced to decide how to balance the two.

In the coming months, the City Council will grapple with an existential question facing the city: whether to facilitate St. Pete's development boom by changing rules that prevent housing density from increasing in areas considered to be most at risk for flood damage.

City rules prohibit the City Council from changing zoning maps to increase housing density — for example, rezoning a single-family lot to a multi-family lot — in areas that the state has marked as Coastal High Hazard Areas.

The reason is to curb the potential need for evacuation and damage costs in the event of a high-intensity storm, which climate scientists say are expected to increase in the years to come.

But Coastal High Hazard Areas are taking up an increasing share of the city. The Florida Department of Emergency Management routinely redraws hazard maps based on annual weather data, and the last time it redrew the maps in 2016, the area in St. Petersburg doubled in size — 41 percent of the city, or 25 square miles, is now considered a high hazard area.

"This was a game-changer for us, in a way," City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle told council members during a committee meeting Thursday. "We have to think about the future of the city in a lot of ways. … This impacts our city from head to tail, north to south."

To address the tension between rising flood risk and mounting development, city staffers are drafting what DeLisle refers to as a "balanced approach" — new rules that would allow for increased housing density in high hazard areas, with the caveat that new construction projects are flood-resistant and environmentally friendly.

Liz Abernethy, the city's Director of Planning and Development Services, told council members Thursday that city staff consulted with the Urban Land Institute, which made recommendations for the new rules. One recommendation is a requirement that new multi-family units in high hazard areas be elevated structures, built at least two feet above the base flood elevation.

The City Council will not have to vote on the proposal until at least October, when it's set to be finalized. At Thursday's committee meeting, council members voiced disagreement over whether increased housing density in high hazard areas should be allowed.

"Over time it sounds like these storms are going to increase in intensity and number," council member Steve Kornell said. "I don't want to be in a situation where we realize what we did something dangerous because somebody wanted increased density."

Council member Brandi Gabbard, who represents low-lying coastal communities in the north side of the city, said she supports the change allowing increased density as long as new developments are built with flood mitigation in mind. Gabbard added that 95 percent of parcels in her district fall within Coastal High Hazard Areas.

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"Anything we can do to make my district more resilient, I'm happy to do it," she said.

Contact Aaron Holmes at or (706) 347-1880. Follow @aaronpholmes.