Whetstone: New ordinance was worth the effort

Local Historic City News reporters interviewed Hank Whetstone this morning to get his opinion on Monday night’s adoption of a Floodplain Management Plan for the City of St. Augustine.

In a 5-0 vote to approve at their regular meeting, the city commission adopted Ordinance 2010-05 and repealed a “use” clause in the floodplain management section of the City Code. Mark Knight, Director of the City’s Planning and Building Department noted that the City had adopted the 1997 building code published by the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) including an optional floodplain management code.

Knight recognized Whetstone in his comments before the commission; explaining that Whetstone brought issues to their attention with the way the Planning and Building Department applied provisions of floodplain management codes published by SBCCI based in Birmingham, Alabama.

Knight stated that the requirements could become a hardship for some business owners, but the proposed Ordinance eliminated the evaluation of “use” as it related to floodplain management.

At the conclusion, City Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline also acknowledged Whetstone’s diligence in this process — which puts an end to a dispute over approval of repairs and improvements Whetstone is making to the former St. Augustine Tire Company building on King Street.

“Unless you had an exemption for a historic building,” Whetstone told Historic City News, “the City Building Official directed that any “change of use” of a commercial or residential property required the owner to raise the structure to a 9′ elevation.”

Whetstone was told by City Building Official Nick Andrade that he could not make the improvements requested to his commercial property without raising his building because he was changing its use from a retail tire store to a chocolate factory and retail chocolate store.

Whetstone challenged Andrade’s ruling and confronted both Knight and City Manager Bill Harriss with the results of his research into whether or not a simple change of use could trigger such far-reaching requirements — based on what the City alleged were requirements of SBCCI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Based on approvals that were received by some and withheld from others in the past, Whetstone hopes the new ordinance won’t be selectively applied.

Knight explained to the commission that the SBCCI publication had a clause referring to the “use” of a structure, and, when a change of use application was made, the City had been requiring an evaluation of the structure regarding FEMA flood requirements.

“Before Monday night’s meeting,” Whetstone said, “the City incorporated standards from the Southern Building Code. The first problem for me was that nobody could provide me with a copy of the thirteen year-old, thirty-three page document used to substantiate their action.”

Whetstone went on to tell us that he personally knows of other property owners in town who have lost opportunities to sell or lease their buildings; some of which now stand as vacant eyesores because of the building department’s interpretation of FEMA and SBCCI codes.

“If I had to raise my 7,000 square foot building to 9 feet,” Whetstone said, “it would have cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. I just wouldn’t have done it — and we would have another unoccupied building for bums to vandalize.”

Whetstone tried unsuccessfully to get a copy of the documents from the library. He tried to reference the codes being used against him on the Internet and discovered that he couldn’t because the documents are protected by copyright. Likewise, even though the city required property owners to comply with them, the city could not republish the copyright protected material in its current form.

Frustrated with the process, Whetstone purchased a .pdf copy of the codes from SBCCI, which cost him $75.00.

Floodplain “minimum standards” were established nationally by FEMA when the national flood insurance plan was enacted in the 1960’s. The State moved away from relying on the Southern Building Code template after Hurricane Andrew when they established the Florida Building Code; but it does not contain construction requirements for existing buildings when occupancy changes the building’s use.

Armed with the FEMA flood requirements and the copy of the SBCCI requirements, Whetstone and his attorney contended that, all along, the City was misinterpreting the code. Whetstone told Historic City News that he received an opinion letter from both SBCCI and FEMA that neither guideline requires structural changes based on property use.

Whetstone said that there is only one time that the word “use” appears in the 33 page SBCCI document — and nowhere does the term “change of use” appear; although that was how the building department was interpreting it, in this case.

Commissioner Crichlow pointed out that Ordinance 2010-05 would not eliminate public and safety code requirements; however, it would eliminate the requirement to raise the finished floor elevation, which could be very costly. He further explained that if renovations were over 50% of a structure’s value, the FEMA finished floor elevation would be required for any structure, commercial or residential.

Although Whetstone still objects to an staff change included in the new ordinance that extends the calculation period from one to five years for determining whether or not more than fifty-percent of the value of the building has been spent on remodeling, Whetstone says that he feels his cost, time and effort in achieving this ordinance was worth it.

Whetstone said, “Except for my residence, this is the only property I own in the city. My fight over this issue wasn’t just about me.”

“Now when the City tells a building owner that they have to spend thousands of dollars to raise the floor before they remodel, it won’t be because they simply want to put in a different kind of business,” Whetstone told us. “We now have a fully articulated Floodplain Management Plan, it’s transparent, written in plain language and will be available online.”

Photo credit: © 2010 Historic City News staff photographer

Share your thoughts with our readers >>