Building codes in Panhandle targeted

Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers moved Tuesday toward eliminating the so-called Panhandle exemption — the region's softer building codes that some say have worsened the property insurance crunch forcing the state Legislature into a special session this week.

A bill that would require the Florida Panhandle, from Franklin County to the Alabama border, to abide by the same building-code standards as the rest of the state passed a House committee by a unanimous vote. It now moves to the House floor, but technical differences with the Senate version remain.

The Senate's building code measure is wrapped into a giant insurance bill, which is likely to be voted on out of committee today.

While the rest of the state follows national engineering regulations for buildings that could be exposed to 120 mph winds — a Category 3 hurricane — the Panhandle has not had the same requirements since 2000. The exemption came from the idea that the Panhandle was less likely to be struck by major hurricanes than other areas of the state, and had denser foliage that lessened the impact of the wind.

"This bill addresses an outdated and dangerous notion that the Panhandle is at less danger" than other areas in Florida, said Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, the bill's sponsor.

Under the exemption adopted in 2000, only Panhandle homes within one mile from shore were required to have wind-borne debris protection such as hurricane shutters.

A Florida Building Commission engineering study, contracted last year under direction from the Legislature, concluded that extending that line somewhat farther inland would be a good investment. For example, in Escambia County, the line would extend inland nine miles from shore.

Even under those rules, set to take effect in March, the Panhandle would not be held to as strict a building-code standard as the rest of the state.

But lawmakers in the House Government Efficiency and Accountability Council said Tuesday that doesn't go far enough. They want uniform standards throughout the state, which would essentially mean that all of Escambia, for example, would have to have wind-borne debris protection.

The idea that insurance losses in the Panhandle contribute to higher rates throughout the state is behind the drive to bring the region in line with the rest of Florida, even though that might just be a "perception," Coley said.

Homebuilders said there's a flaw in adopting the 120-mph standard in the Panhandle. While requiring more stringent building codes in the Panhandle will improve homes and drive down the costs of insurance, those savings will be eclipsed by the higher costs of building homes to the more stringent standards, said Jack Glenn, technical services director for the Florida Home Builders Association.

Glenn said the cost of building a $200,000 home in the Panhandle, for example, would increase $2,500 to $3,500.

Sen. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat whose district includes part of several Panhandle coastal counties, told a Senate panel Tuesday the standards might harm his constituents.

"We don't make much money up here in north Florida and the building costs will go up significantly if we require the same standards up here. The vast majority of people cannot afford a significant increase" in the cost of housing, he said.

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