Building height highlighted in discussion on code update in St. Augustine Beach

PETER.WILLOTT@STAUGUSTINE.COM A man rides his bike past the Embassy Suites Hotel under construction in St. Augustine Beach on Thursday, January 11, 2018.

An update to flood regulations in St. Augustine Beach brought building height limits into focus again.


The ordinance, which passed on first reading before the Beach City Commission and needs another vote before adoption, will keep the city’s flood regulations in line with federal standards that allow residents to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program, according to the ordinance.

One section of the ordinance covers different elevation requirements for residences depending on what flood-zone designation of a property.

The section ends by noting that “No provisions shall be deemed to permit an increase of the overall building height limit.”

Brian Law, city building and zoning director, said the section answers a questions about height limits that hadn’t been answered before for the city. It doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be exceptions to the building height limit.

He also said at this month’s commission meeting that the language means, for example, that someone who has to build at a higher elevation because they’re in a flood zone won’t have “a pass” to start their 35-foot height limit at the floor level.

“I mean, I’m sorry you built in a flood zone, but that’s how we end up with 50-foot-tall buildings,” Law said. “They also have the option to appeal. Under no circumstance will I recommend a variance to the flood program.”

Law clarified Friday that he won’t issue a variance that disregards minimum flood elevations, an action that could put the city’s participation in the flood program in jeopardy.

While the section of the ordinance Law was talking about deals with residential buildings, building height and scale are big issues in St. Augustine Beach. The city has mostly small homes and businesses, and the city had about 7,000 residents in 2016, according to the U.S. Census.

Residents have fought to keep large homes from being built on small lots and large commercial buildings from cropping up that are out of character for the city because of their size.

Voters decided via referendum in 2014 to keep the building height limit at 35 feet. Yet, city officials allowed an exception to that with the Embassy Suites on A1A Beach Boulevard.

The building, which was planned to be more than 50 feet and is under construction, was given an exception because it is in a flood zone that required the first floor to be elevated — lawyers for the developers said that meant the 35 foot restriction didn’t begin until the first level of habitable space.

City officials said the federal regulations superseded the city’s charter. Residents appealed the decision to allow the added height, saying the referendum had been ignored and that the Planning and Zoning Board had been misled by city staff. But that appeal was withdrawn with an understanding that the city would clarify any codes that could lead to misinterpretations of building height.

The ordinance that Law presented also brings the city’s regulations in line with changes to the 2017 Florida Building Code.

Also, Law said city flood regulations will need to be updated again as early as December. That’s when changes are expected to federal flood zone designations that would save residents money on flood insurance.

City Manager Max Royle said he expects the second reading of the ordinance to be Feb. 12.