heather carruthersThis month, I attended the Gulf Coast Caucus meeting of the National Association of Counties where we discussed how to grapple with the consequences of revisions to the National Flood Insurance Program. I also attended a regional climate change meeting and learned more about the impacts we are likely to see from rising sea levels.  My long-time involvement with the County and FIRM on these issues leads me to support the City’s referendum on making a limited exception to the height limit to allow homeowners to protect themselves from flood damage and exorbitant  flood insurance costs. It’s an important and prudent approach to flood plain management.

I’ve been disappointed to hear and read speculative and uninformed remarks in opposition to the referendum and would like to address some specific issues.

  1. There has been no substantiation of the cost of elevating a structure other than some speculation at an August City Commission meeting. In fact, I personally know of one property owner who has received a quote of approximately $ 50,000 to elevate a large home in the Meadows, and have heard of another who paid around $ 30,000 to elevate a small home in Bahama Village. (City staff is investigating prices.) Further, it is likely that these costs will come down as technology improves and there is demand for the service.
  2. There are limited funds available from FEMA for elevating structures except immediately after a storm, when up to e $ 30,000 per flooded home may be available. There is also FEMA funding available for elevation of Repetitive Loss and Severe Repetitive Loss properties, of which there are 228 within the city limits. However, FEMA is not the only potential source of funding. Many governments are accessing the PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy program) for funds to harden homes against water and wind. The program allows property owners to receive a very low-interest loan to improve structures. The loan is repaid through an assessment on the property tax bill that runs with the property, not with the owner, so it is not paid off upon sale to a new owner. Other sources of funding will become available as governments work to adapt to rising sea levels and increased severe weather events.
  3. It is unknown today how many homeowners might take advantage of the exception and raise their homes out of the flood plain. And rightly so. This is a process that will play out over decades, not next year. The last flood zones were drawn in 2005 based on a flood study in 1989. Allowing up to a four-foot increase should insure that homes will be protected beyond 2050, when sea level is projected to rise between 9” and 24”.
  4. Buildings in the HARC district would undergo additional scrutiny before the exemption would be granted. Isn’t this the kind of oversight and protection some hope to preserve? Also, a significant portion of historic Old Town is outside the regulated floodplain (X-zone), so this referendum wouldn’t even apply to any buildings in those areas.
  5. There are some conditions under which variances may be obtained today, but simple flood protection is not one of them. And if such an elevation would force a home above the current height, it becomes much more difficult to obtain that variance (if granted at all).
  6. It is true that it is not guaranteed that everyone’s flood insurance rates would immediately fall with the passing of this amendment. However, it seems some misunderstand FEMA’s Community Rating System. As communities take measures to protect their citizens from flood damage (and elevating structures out of the flood plain is a key measure), the communities earn points which translate into community-wide percentage reductions in flood insurance base rates. Individual properties may see even greater reductions when their structures exceed the standard community requirements. Passage of this referendum would add credits to the point-based system used to qualify the entire community for CRS flood insurance discounts.  Even if not a single house were elevated under this exception, passage alone qualifies, as it provides an opportunity that doesn’t now exist.  Homes subsequently elevated – particularly the repetitive loss properties – add even more points.
  7. Ponder:
  • All existing permitting requirements would remain in place. The height exception is granted ONLY for the purpose of elevating above base flood level.
  • This would not enable more units to be included in a building. Existing density/intensity constraints will remain in place. And again, the only reason the exception is granted is to elevate the building above base flood.
  • Architects are not magicians. Our relatively small lot sizes, set-back and permeable land requirements (all of which contribute to our community character) place constraints on home size. A two story home elevated above flood may have to lose its second story without this exception. That could mean loss of bedrooms. This might work for singles or childless couples, but families arguably need an upstairs.

I was a history major. I have lived in historic homes all of my adult life. I received a star from HFKF for renovation of an historic property. I revere the past, yet I understand that we must adapt to change if we want to ensure our future. This referendum allows just that.


Commissioner Carruthers is the current Vice President of FIRM [Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe]


  1. Folks, we are so lucky to have Heather fighting for us and our homes. She knows everything there is to know about this issue. Please follow her advice.

  2. In a dream Thursday night, the angels indicated they really liked something Naja Girard was doing, which involved a lot of people. After waking up Friday morning, I opened the new online edition of Key West the Bewspaper and found Naja and Arnaud’s article on the building height referendum.

    In the video interview with Naja, Scott Fraser says the city has no data on how many homes might be covered by the referendum, if it passes. Nor any data on how many homes might have to be torn down and completely rebuilt higher, to take advantage of the referendum. Nor any data on how many homeowners can afford to have their homes raised, or can afford to tear down and rebuild their homes higher.

    I was left fuzzy on whether or not a developer can purchase a vacant lot and build a new home on it and take advantage of the referendum?

    I discussed all of that briefly with Naja Friday night. She said she, too, wondered about the lack of data, and she and Arnaud will talk with City Planner Don Craig this week, and see what else they might learn.

    I also was fuzzy on whether or not the referendum only applies to single family residences? Or will it also apply to a duplex, a four-plex, an apartment building, a guest house, a lodge, a motel, an hotel, an office building, a grocery store? I did not mention that to Naja.

    I did tell Naja that I long have had a problem with the federal government providing flood insurance for homes located in flood-prone areas.

    Naja said FEMA doesn’t like insuring homes on flood-prone areas and is trying to get out of it.

    During the first candidate forum in 2006, after I had filed to run against County Commissioner George Neugent, I said the Florida Keys are a hurricane zone, and if people are worried about hurricanes, perhaps they should live some place else.

    My campaign mantra that year became, “No more new development, period, the end. The Keys are already way over-developed, and there is not a person living here who can look in a mirror and honestly argue otherwise.”

    Federal flood insurance was crucial for the Keys being over-developed. Federal flood insurance is crucial to future development in the Keys.

    I suppose if ISIS, or al Qaeda, weaponize ebola, we might forget all about the building height referendum. We might even forget all about hurricanes. Key West, with all its transient visitors, would be a strategic staging ground for terrorists infected with ebola to start a nation-wide pandemic, and even a world-wide pandemic, given the large number of foreign visitors to Key West.