On Anna Maria Island, when you see an empty lot with new construction about to begin, you know the new building will tower over the traditional Old Florida one-story homes in the neighborhood. Why? It’s the law, to some degree, at least. In 1975 FEMA made it mandatory that all new construction place the first living level at a certain specified number of feet above sea level, which means either having to raise the lot with a huge amount of fill, or building the living space on a second and, possibly, third floor. This coincided with the start of government involvement in flood insurance programs. When the government starts ‘taking care’ of you, it starts telling you how to do things.
And when the government starts telling people how to do things, people usually try to find ways around it. In the case of coastal construction, the rules allow homeowners to keep existing ground level homes, built before 1976, as long as they do only limited improvements at a time. By designing improvements in stages, and being sure never to spend more than 50 percent of a home’s total value on improvements under one permit process, owners of old Florida homes can slowly turn an old ground floor house into a modern and spacious ground floor house. For this reason, there are, in fact, some ground floor homes on Anna Maria Island that look new.
But whenever a truly new house is built, or whenever a developer or property owner does not have time to make small improvements over time, FEMA laws require building elevated structures. Since new homes and remodels usually are aimed at people who want more living space than previous generations of Florida retirees, the new homes usually encompass many more square feet than the old ones. Since this square footage is elevated, the result is a building that looks gigantic compared to the scale of Anna Maria Island’s classic old homes.
Because the government has stepped in to guarantee flood insurance, homeowners have the luxury of building large, elevated homes, with a sense that they will be reimbursed in the event of flood water damage from hurricane surge or heavy rains. Because people feel safe, the amount of new coastal development has soared since FEMA got involved. In some ways, there are good reasons to feel this sense of security, because FEMA and local authorities have increased the building requirements so that new construction is better able to tolerate storms than the old buildings were.
Still, it seems something has been lost. Common sense tells us it is smart to build modest structures on the coast, and especially on an island. For most of history, waterfront homes were built simply with the awareness that they could disappear in one good storm. So for many past generations, we were used to seeing simple houses at the beach, and there is something charming about that. The beach house came to represent life without complication. It’s not only a matter of economics.
With every large new elevated house, we are losing a little bit of that sense that island living is simple and modest. We are losing the views of water and vegetation that used to characterize the island. But at least Anna Maria Island still retains more of these things than most coastal communities. And the really good news is that the developers of the new Pine Avenue restoration project in Anna Maria City are very much aware of the advantage of the small-scale look of Old Florida. By voluntarily designing their buildings to forego a third floor, they hope to help preserve the charm of the island’s northernmost commercial area.