Commentary

After hurricane, Florida beach town proposes a development moratorium

New Smyrna Beach’s thoughtful pause is a contrast to other storm-ravaged towns rebuilding as fast as they can

December 22, 2022 7:00 am

Picture of a submerged BMW in a street after Hurricane Ian. Credit: New Smyrna Beach official Facebook page

Dear Santa,

Hi! Been a looooong time since I last wrote to you. Thanks for the Hank Aaron baseball glove you brought me back then. I guess I should have asked you for Hammerin’ Hank’s skill at throwing, catching and hitting homers, too. Oh well, live and learn.

Anyway, I am writing to you this December day to ask you for something special, not so much for me as for my kids.

Let me explain. Last week, I spotted a story in The Daytona Beach News-Journal that took my breath away. It involved the city of New Smyrna Beach and a word seldom used in Florida. The headline: “NSB Commission signals support of development moratorium ahead of final January vote.”

The dreaded M-word! The word that developers hate! Using this word in Florida is like that scene in “A Christmas Story” where Ralphie says a word that he shouldn’t and gets his mouth washed out with a bar of Lifebuoy soap. Yuck!

Yet there was the M-word, in black and white.

New Smyrna Beach City Hall. From city Facebook page.

“In one of the new City Commission’s most significant decisions yet, commissioners signaled on Tuesday night their support for the proposed six-month development moratorium in New Smyrna Beach’s flood zones,” the newspaper reported.

The moratorium would affect projects of 10 acres or more, and if the city needs more than six months, it could extend the moratorium for six more months. A unanimous vote by the planning and zoning board gave the red light for development a green light. The first commission vote for it was unanimous too. The final vote is slated for January 10.

What could possibly drive this city of 31,000 people to back a six-month stoppage to Florida’s Unstoppable Development Machine?

Hurricane Ian, that’s what.

The Volusia County town with 13 miles of white sandy beaches “recorded close to 21 inches of rain and 4 feet of storm surge in some areas,” the paper noted. “County and city first responders rescued about 215 individuals as a result of the flooding, while over 850 homes suffered catastrophic damage to their properties.”

Yes, that would tend to get your attention – especially given what the city’s voters believe happened.

“There’s been a lot of speculation among the residents that residential development was the cause of flooding throughout the city,” assistant city manager Phillip Veski told me. That’s why, he said, the commission is in favor of “taking a brief pause.”

When Veski told me the moratorium proposal had come from the town’s former mayor, Russ Owen, I knew who I had to call next.

Santa, you may already have him on your list. No, not the naughty one.

Any home built after yours

Owen, a management and software consultant, recently turned 40. He was 36 when he first ran for office in the city that’s been his home since he was 11. He’s married and has three kids, ages 13, 11 and 7. When he filed to run for the non-partisan position, it was his first time ever seeking a political office.

“I was part of the ‘who’s not’ club, instead of ‘who’s who,’” he joked.

Yet he won that 2018 race, and then in 2020 won a second two-year term. He became mayor, he told me, because he contended the city should take a close look at whether it was becoming overdeveloped.

“We’re not anti-development,” he said. The key is to strike a balance that preserves what’s best about the town – a difficult feat in these days when sprawl seems to be the norm, not the exception.

Former New Smyrna Beach mayor Russ Owen. Credit: Russ Owen.

Owen acknowledged that some folks who want a moratorium didn’t think their own suburb was part of the problem. One of his regular quips, he said, was that “everyone in New Smyrna is against recent development. That’s defined as any home that was built after your home.”

But if the new development is robbing the city of its ability to handle flooding, then surely that’s a sign that it’s time for a change. The residents are ready for that change.

“We are definitely in favor of this – in fact, we wish it had a broader scope and covered even more development,” Chip Weston of the New Smyrna Beach Residents’ Coalition told me. Better development regulations could ease homeowners’ soaring property insurance rates, he pointed out.

Owen said his proposal did run into some pushback from those in the development business. During last week’s meeting, Glenn Storch, a Daytona Beach attorney who represents several large-scale residential developments, urged the commission to reject the moratorium.

“If you look at the idea of stopping everything, saying ‘We can’t have any more growth,’ that’s not relating to a flooding issue,” Storch told commissioners. That was right before every single one of them voted to ignore his objections.

Owen said the developers aren’t as hard to disregard right now as they would have been a year ago.

“Mortgage rates are rising and there are not a lot of 10-acre projects on the horizon right now,” he told me. “It’s not like we’re pulling the rug out from under anybody.”

Still, he said, when he proposed the six-month moratorium, “some residents wished for a permanent moratorium.” That’s how fed up they are with permissive state and local government agencies saying yes to every developer who shows up with a set of plans.

A lot of Floridians feel that way these days. In fact, three months before Ian made landfall, the town of Deltona imposed a moratorium on rezoning requests for single-family home developments.

“I think the commission needs to look at our land development code and adjust what we require from developers,” Deltona Mayor Heidi Herzberg explained.

The sense that sprawl is out of control is springing up all over, not just Deltona and New Smyrna Beach.

Despite rising sea levels, our state has seen rampant overdevelopment in flood-prone spots in recent years. Favorable mortgage rates and a pro-developer governor and Legislature have turned the state into a hotbed of poorly planned projects risking inundation. Four Florida cities just made a list of the fastest-growing boomtowns in the nation.

Making things worse, the builders have frequently wiped out wetlands and other environmental features that Ralphie’s Old Man would have called “fra-GEE-lay.” They do that despite the fact that wetlands soak up floodwaters before they become a problem. Pavement, you may have noticed, doesn’t soak up anything.

Meanwhile the stormwater and sewer pipes that were adequate to handle the waste flow 20 or 30 years ago can’t cope with the vast increase in people who have moved in since then. That the waves washing in from the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico are creeping higher and higher complicate that flow even further.

So it’s logical that when a Category 4 hurricane stormed across this coastal city, all that new construction meant the city couldn’t cope with the flooding that resulted.

What IS surprising, Santa, is that the people in that city paid attention to what happened and want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Hey, I’d call that a Christmas miracle!

Functional paradise

Compare the New Smyrna Beach moratorium proposal to the attitude in other parts of the state that were slammed by Ian. In a lot of places, the folks in charge want to rebuild in the exact same places that were washed away in September.

They might talk about “building back better,” but there’s no discussion or debate about doing things differently – or even taking a second or so to figure out if that’s possible.

Jane West, of 1,000 Friends of Florida. Credit: 1,000 Friends of Florida.

“In Southwest Florida, we’re seeing the opposite situation” to New Smyrna Beach, said Jane West of 1,000 Friends of Florida, a group that supports smart growth. “They’re pursuing a definite relaxing of the development criteria. That’s not what we want to see.”

The image-conscious vice mayor of Fort Myers Beach was recently quoted by the Fort Myers News-Press promising that that battered town will be a “functional paradise” again within just a year. And nobody say otherwise!

“I’m hearing some things around the island that give me great concern,” Vice Mayor Jim Atterholt said. “I hear about this concept of ‘It’s going to take five years to rebuild our island.’… For the people who keep talking about five years, seven years, I wish they’d knock it off.”

That kind of realistic assessment of the long road ahead in fixing the damage “is extremely dangerous messaging,” he said, and “so important that we don’t say publicly.”

The 1,000 or so people moving to Florida every day may hear that kind of Debby Downer talk and flee Fort Myers Beach as fast as they can, he warned: “We’re going to lose people who visit our island to other communities. This is a competitive market out there.”

Well heavens, we can’t have potential homebuyers being fully informed about the risks of buying flood-prone Florida property!

This is an insidious little game we’ve been playing with unsuspecting buyers since before the 1920s land boom. In the Marx Brothers’ first movie, “Coconuts,” Groucho played a shady Florida real estate salesman of that era. He responded to a question about what kind of house construction he was selling by saying: “You can have any kind of a home you want. You can even get stucco. Oh, how you can get stuck-oh!”

Listen, I think people can handle the truth. After all, New Smyrna Beach is the Shark Attack Capital of the World, yet people sill flock to its beach.

Florida used to have a state agency that kept a leash on growth, trying to ensure that it would not result in rampant flooding problems, traffic tie-ups and other unintended consequences of the kinds we’re experiencing now. That agency, the Department of Community Affairs, was abolished by then-Gov. Rick “Bah, Humbug!” Scott, R-Richest Guy in the Senate.

Now there’s someone who definitely deserves to be on your naughty list.

Why not statewide?

So here’s the deal, Santa. Here’s what I am asking you for, just as fervently as I once begged you for that Hank Aaron signature fielder’s glove.

I look at what is going on in New Smyrna Beach, and wonder: Why can’t we do that statewide?

Why can’t we call for a statewide moratorium in building big projects in flood-prone areas, then spend that time figuring out how to make things better? Take six months to a year. Assign the state’s regional planning councils to examine what worked and what didn’t.

Then have them draw up recommendations for improvements to our development plans, not just along the coast but also in the state’s interior. They should look at Arcadia, for instance, where the flooding was so bad the governor thought he had to wear special boots just to ride around in a boat for a photo op.

Whatever recommendations they come up with, the Legislature needs to turn them into law. The lawmakers can’t just nod vigorously about the recommendations and then toss the report in the trash, the way they did with the report from the Blue-Green Algae Task Force.

This is the reason I am turning to you for help, Santa. I figure our growth-at-all-cost politicians will give the same lack of consideration to whatever the planners suggest.

So I need you to put some serious pressure on all those bad boys and girls who make our laws. Convince them to do what’s best for us and our children, not what’s best for their campaign contributors.

Threaten to put coal in their stockings. A bar of Lifebuoy in their mouths. A Hank Aaron signature Louisville Slugger upside their noggins. Whatever it takes.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

MORE FROM AUTHOR