‘Natural Emergencies’ law aims to improve hurricane response, but little impact is seen here

‘Natural Emergencies’ law aims to improve hurricane response, but little impact is seen here

A new law designed to help communities recover from Hurricane Ian and become more resilient against future storms also could temporarily restrict local land-use decisions and even undo decisions made by west-coast governments since the hurricane.

The “Natural Emergencies” bill, Senate Bill 250, was sponsored by two Fort Myers legislators and signed into law July 1 by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Critics of the law view it as another threat to home rule, but Treasure Coast officials say it is likely to have no significant impact here.

Martin County appears to be unaffected by the law but is still reviewing it, particularly as it might pertain to home rule, said spokesperson Martha Ann Kneiss.

“We’re always concerned about home rule,” she said, adding local governments have seen those rights eroded recently. “The people governing within the counties know the specific needs of their communities.”

Likewise, St. Lucie County officials see no issue with the law. Nothing of concern about the law was brought to the county’s attention, said Karen Kozac, assistant director of public safety. Kozac said he understood concerns about the home-rule element, as circumstances involving a natural emergency can look very different for each county.

Portions of the Conn Beach boardwalk have broken from the foundation of Ocean Drive due to shoreline erosion in Vero Beach after Hurricane Nicole made landfall on Thursday Nov.  10, 2022.

Portions of the Conn Beach boardwalk have broken from the foundation of Ocean Drive due to shoreline erosion in Vero Beach after Hurricane Nicole made landfall on Thursday Nov. 10, 2022.

Warning signs at the Riverside Park boat ramp, which the city reopened this month after its docks were damaged by Hurricane Nicole, Thursday, April 7, 2023.

Warning signs at the Riverside Park boat ramp, which the city reopened this month after its docks were damaged by Hurricane Nicole, Thursday, April 7, 2023.

The state prohibition against more restrictive and burdensome rules reaches back to Sept. 28, the day Ian hit, and applying it to every locality within 100 miles of where the destructive hurricane made landfall.

It similarly applies to areas impacted by Hurricane Nicole, which made landfall near Vero Beach in November. But that would apply only if counties were making changes to their comprehensive plans or land-use regulations, Treasure Coast officials said.

Bathtub Beach erosion the morning after Hurricane Nicole on Thursday, Nov.  10, 2022, on south Hutchinson Island in Martin County.

Bathtub Beach erosion the morning after Hurricane Nicole on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, on south Hutchinson Island in Martin County.

The Natural Emergencies bill has sparked concerns among local leaders in places such as Naples and Palm Beach.

The Senate unanimously approved it May 1, and included a retroactive prohibition against adopting any harsher regulations. It would essentially render them null and void.

Certain proposals or actions taken by a town, city or county would be wiped out, requiring them to restart the process to adopt those changes after the prohibition expires in September 2024.

Since Ian, the Naples City Council has adopted several changes to regulations that could be overturned by the new law. A few weeks ago, it delayed decisions on several proposed code changes due to the legislation, with the expectation that it would become law.

more: State legislation could undo land use changes made in Naples since Hurricane Ian

The town of Palm Beach, sitting roughly 80 miles to the south of Hurricane Nicole’s landfall at North Hutchinson Island, saw little damage from the storm, yet, it’s still impacted by the new law.

more: Construction ‘pause’ pulled amid conflict with new state legislation

For more than a year, the town has worked with consultants to overhaul its outdated zoning codes, which have been criticized as inconsistent and confusing.

In May, the council delayed imposing a six-month pause on some residential projects while it worked toward implementing new development rules. After hearing from the town attorney, the councilors determined it would have been at odds with SB 250.

“I feel this has really taken our home rule away,” Councilwoman Julie Araskog said at the time. “It’s very disappointing and it’s very discouraging and in my opinion, unfair.”

The bill faced no widespread opposition. Many city, town and county managers around the state, in fact, said its pros far outweighed its cons. The Florida League of Cities, the voice for local government in the state, took no position.

What else is in the new law?

The law includes:

  • Requiring the Florida Department of Emergency Management post a model debris-removal contract for local governments on its website.

  • Encouraging local governments to create emergency financial plans in preparation for major natural disasters.

  • Requiring cities and counties to allow residents to live in trailers or recreational vehicles on their properties for up to three years after a hurricane.

  • Authorizing local governments to create specialized building inspection teams to review and expedite permits for temporary housing following a disaster.

  • Requiring local governments to expedite issuance of permits after a storm.

  • Increasing the extension of certain building permits following the declaration of a state of emergency from six months to 24 months, or up to four years in the case of multiple natural disasters.

Many governments already have their own debris-removal contracts in place. But the state’s contract would serve as an example for those governments without one, said Kozac, of St. Lucie County.

“It’s simply providing (governments) with a model of what that looks like,” she said.

For Vero Beach, the law appears to have no impact, City Manager Monte Falls said. Vero Beach uses its own contracts for debris cleanup after a storm, he said.

The law also provides $62 million and spending authority, including $11 million for local government hazard mitigation projects and $50 million for a Local Government Emergency Bridge Loan Program, doubling the amount previously available to help with recovery.

Palm Beach Daily News reporter Jodie Wagner contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: New Florida law to help with hurricane recovery, could hurt home rule

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