Gov. Scott has until May 5 to sign or veto flood development bill

by Matthew Glans on April 26, 2012

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has until May 5 to decide on whether to sign or veto legislation that could potentially imperil the state’s ability to continue participating in the National Flood Insurance Program.

Out of the Storm News first commented on potential problems with H.B. 503–a bill designed to streamline the development permitting process in Florida –and its effects on flood insurance in the state a few weeks ago. Despite letters sent back and forth between Florida regulators and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the matter remains unresolved. Some experts are now arguing that without a veto by Scott, thousands of homeowners in Florida could be without flood insurance.

H.B. 503 passed through the Florida Legislature earlier this year with little fanfare, passing with no dissent in either house. It was only after a letter of warning from FEMA cautioning that the state could be removed from the NFIP that details of the bill began to raise doubts. The problem, argued FEMA Regional Director Major May is that the bill would prohibit county and municipal planners from requiring documentation of compliance with state and federal agency dictates as a precondition for issuing development permits.

May argued in his letter that because the law would allow permits to be issued without meeting NFIP preconditions for floodplain management standards, the state will not be allowed access to federal flood insurance. As reported by the Panama City News Herald:

The National Flood Insurance Program requires communities to ensure all necessary permits are in place before approving development as a condition of participating in the program. H.B. 503, however, prevents local governments from withholding permits until federal and state agencies approve the project.

According to the letter, 459 Florida communities participate in the National Flood Insurance Program and there are 2,059,371 Florida policies worth more than $471 billion in coverage.

Some Florida officials have argued that FEMA’s claims are unfounded, that the language of the bill only deals with the issuance of development permits. Before any construction could commence, local governments would still require the developer to obtain federal and state permits, satisfying the NFIP’s flood mitigation standards.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, argues that as long as local governments can require developers to acquire state and federal permits, the regional FEMA office has said that this should settle potential conflicts. Patronis told the News Herald that the issue “has all subsided.”

While Patronis seems confident the existing bill covers this issue, others have argued that more work may need to be done before it is passed. Many are questioning whether the bill should be signed without first negotiating a compromise with FEMA. In an editorial, the Sun Sentinel argued that Scott faces the daunting challenge of keeping the spirit of H.B. 503 intact while alleviating FEMA’s concerns:

Self-interest motivates FEMA almost as much as the devastating impact the bill could have on Florida. The National Flood Insurance Program is awash in red ink — $18 billion and counting.

It’s a program that needs every possible safeguard to ensure its resources are properly used. State legislation that opens the floodgates to risky coverage for developments in flood-prone areas ought to be questioned by federal authorities.

The good news is that Gov. Scott is taking all this seriously and is negotiating with FEMA officials on a compromise. That would allow the bill’s original intent — clearing the way for a faster permitting process — while maintaining federal flood insurance requirements before construction can begin.

FEMA has expressed interest, which is a plus, but the federal agency insists that the state must bolster enforcement before any compromise should be accepted. That’s the governor’s challenge.

If a deal can’t be struck by the bill’s May 5 deadline, Gov. Scott has no choice but to veto HB 503.

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