Marathon homeowners are less likely to be required to rebuild their homes following significant damages or improvements, due to the unanimous approval of a new ordinance at its first public hearing.

Ordinance 2021-24, brought before the Marathon City Council at its meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 12, amends the building code. Previously, homeowners would be required to demolish and rebuild their homes if “any combination of repair, reconstruction, rehabilitation, alteration, addition, or other improvement” to the structure exceeded 50% of its market value over a three-year period. The new ordinance shortens that period to one year before the cumulative counter “resets.”

“This was done to protect our residents,” said councilman John Bartus, one of the driving forces behind the amendment. “FEMA only requires that the cumulative damage clock can be reset every year.”

Known colloquially as the “50% rule,” the previous three-year cumulative period gave several homeowners pause before proceeding with significant improvements to their homes, fearing that damage from a storm or other event within the following years would put them over the threshold and force a demolition. 

On the other hand, some chose to delay reconstruction after storms like Hurricane Irma, knowing the timing of their action could trigger enforcement of the ordinance after previous improvements or repairs. 

While it is still speculative at this point, both the one-year and three-year windows offer benefits and potential concerns. With the previous three-year period, the odds of homes being torn down and rebuilt remained higher, as the chances of crossing the cumulative 50% mark over a longer period of time are significantly greater, particularly in seasons with increasing storm frequencies. In the future, however, insurance payouts for repeated reconstruction of older ground-level homes would likely decrease as the homes are replaced with stilted, more resilient buildings in compliance with current building standards.

If the new ordinance passes final approval, the new one-year period would likely result in fewer rebuilds and assuage the fears of Marathon homeowners planning improvements while watching storm forecasts. 

With the cumulative damage counter resetting each year, the new ordinance would allow for greater flexibility in repeated repairs or combinations of improvements and repairs. The drawback to this plan would be the possibility of increased flood insurance premiums as repeated payouts go to repair older ground-level homes damaged by subsequent storms. However, this possibility is difficult to speculate. “I don’t know that I’ve got a crystal ball for that,” said Bartus.

Keys Weekly received concerns regarding the effect of the new ordinance on Marathon’s rating in the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System (CRS), a voluntary incentive program that can provide discounts on flood insurance premiums in response to community floodplain management activities. With Marathon currently holding a CRS rating of Class 6 for its management activities exceeding the minimum NFIP standards, residents receive a 20% discount on flood insurance premiums. Concerns were largely centered around the new ordinance’s ability to hurt this rating.

However, as Planning Director Brian Shea attested, the changes to reduce to a one-year period with the new ordinance will not affect Marathon’s point value in the CRS. “We weren’t getting points for the three-year period,” he said, “and the only way to score more would have been to actually increase to a five-year period. Staff will continue to work hard to find other alternatives to better our score in the CRS program.” 

Bartus added that while a five-year reset period could score points, the potential to level so many ground level homes was too great. “With three years, there’s no benefit to it, and I don’t think going to five years is in the best interest of Marathon residents,” said Bartus.

In response to concerns raised regarding repeated repairs to ground-level homes, Shea pointed to other programs as alternatives, including voluntary home buyouts under the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program. Under this program, homeowners can elect to allow the city to purchase a storm-damaged ground-level home at market value. The structure will be demolished and permanently replaced by a park or open space. 

“It’s one more unit out of the flood zone, one more person who doesn’t have to worry about getting hit by a flood anymore,” said Shea. “We also get the allocation, which we can then use somewhere else, and we get a nice new open space area which becomes a community park and counts towards our CRS credit for having open space. That land becomes vacant forever.” 

As far as potential premium increases, Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe (FIRM) president Mel Montagne said there are other bigger factors at play. “Flood insurance premiums are going up either way,” said Montagne, “but that’s due to FEMA’s Risk Rating 2.0.”

Risk Rating 2.0 calculates premiums based on the value of policyholders’ homes and the flood risk of individual properties. There is disagreement on the effects of the rating system. For full coverage on Risk Rating 2.0, see page 6 of the Sept. 29 Marathon Weekly, available at Parties interested in the voluntary home buyout program should contact Vicki Boguszewski at 786-643-3695 or [email protected].com. Ordinance 2021-24 is scheduled for its second public hearing and enactment at the Nov. 9 meeting of the Marathon City Council.

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Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.