By Joe Capozzi
A divided Briny Breezes Town Council has endorsed a new ordinance that would protect homes from flooding and projected sea-level rise by raising them on pilings or stilts.
But the new ordinance, part of an ambitious resiliency strategy that includes enhanced sea walls and a new stormwater system for Briny, is far from a done deal.
While the creation of the new “elevated single-family overlay district” might seem like a no-brainer for a waterfront mobile home community with a history of flooding during storms and high tides, some council members and residents have concerns.
“This will change the character of Briny. The Briny that I see today will not be the Briny that this ordinance will create,’’ said David White, one of several residents who spoke during a two-hour public hearing April 27 before council members voted 3-2 on first reading to create the district.
If sea-level rise projections are accurate, Briny Breezes will eventually change without the ordinance.
A 144-page Flooding Adaptation Plan, drafted by the Fort Lauderdale-based coastal engineering firm Brizaga Inc. in 2021 and commissioned for about $30,000 by the Briny Breezes Corp., included National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration models that showed low-lying areas on the west side of town permanently under water in 2040.
Another model, for a Category 3 hurricane in 2070, shows the entire west side of town under up to 5 feet of water and sections on the east under more than 3 feet of water.
The proposed Elevated Homes Overlay District would offer a potential solution because it would allow homes to be converted into two-story structures to be raised no more than 25 feet including mechanical and structural elements.
Briny’s current building codes only allow for single-story structures in town, which is sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway. The proposed Elevated Homes Overlay District would allow two-story homes, with the first floor restricted to parking. (Early versions of the plan, debated for more than a year, called for three stories.)
In other words, the living spaces that Briny residents are used to would still be confined to one story, but with a key change: Their single-story primary living space would be elevated on pilings to a second floor; the new open-air first floor would be set aside for parking only and without walls.
Under the proposed ordinance, the elevated homes are an option for homeowners, not a requirement. And the changes would be restricted to the lot’s existing footprint, meaning construction can go only up and not out.
The proposal calls for additional changes on the west side of Briny, which is on the Intracoastal Waterway and has the town’s lowest elevations. Those properties would need up to 5 feet of fill added to the land base, including 3.5 feet for driveway pads. That way, properties would be at an elevation consistent with potential sea wall improvements and road elevations, thereby eliminating risks of more flooding.
“When the sea wall is improved, if you don’t raise up the dirt and land behind the sea wall, you create flooding,’’ attorney Erin Deady, a resiliency land-use consultant, told the council.
“The whole point of this is to get ready for future tidal risks that we know are going to occur,’’ she said.
A packet summarizing the ordinance, passed out to residents before the meeting, included photographs of houses on pilings in a community in Islamorada in the Florida Keys, images meant to show what the new Briny Breezes might look like.
But council member Sue Thaler said the photographs show roads much wider than Briny’s narrow streets and do not clearly show how parking would look beneath the raised homes.
“I still don’t think we have a good image of what it’s going to look like on our interior roads to have two 25-foot structures across from one another. What I visualize I don’t want to see in Briny Breezes. That makes me hesitate to move forward with something like this,’’ she said.
“I don’t like what I think it’s going to look like. I really would like to see what it looks like with the parking availability underneath.’’
Giving residents options
In March, some Briny planning and zoning board members suggested the council take a field trip to a waterfront mobile home community in Martin County that has homes on stilts.
That idea was shot down by town officials who feared it would create confusion.
Council President Christina Adams reminded her colleagues that the ordinance would only be a voluntary tool that would give residents options for dealing with sea-level rise — options that don’t currently exist in the town codes.
“For us to continue to not look after the public health and safety, the welfare for proper living spaces, I think would be in gross error for us to do that,’’ Adams said.
Deady, responding to a concern from Thaler, acknowledged that elevating homes would be costly. But she added, “The intention of the ordinance was to provide options and a mechanism for people who want to make that substantial investment, or God forbid there is a substantial event where people are significantly damaged, your code will not allow them to redevelop to a safer unit.’’
The ordinance will require the new houses to conform to new FEMA flood elevation requirements “which are anticipated to become final in the near future,’’ according to the ordinance.
Council member Bill Birch said he thought it might make sense for the council to wait until the new FEMA requirements are established before creating the district.
“Nobody knows what the final FEMA elevation requirements will be,’’ he said after the meeting. “I just don’t want these (new elevated homes) to go sky high. I don’t ever want to see the actual look of Briny change.’’
Birch wound up casting the swing vote to approve the ordinance on first reading, voting with Adams and council member Liz Loper. Thaler and council member Kathy Gross voted no.
Birch said he wanted to give Deady and town officials “a chance to make revisions and come back for a final vote.’’
The second vote is scheduled for May 25.
In a related matter, the council gave Town Manager William Thrasher permission to seek financing options for a $2.5 million loan. Combined with $1 million in reserves, the loan would be used to leverage much larger grants that would cover the bulk of $22.5 million in projects to restore the town’s sea walls and install an advanced drainage system.