Boca Grande’s Historic District: Solving the Boca Grande building puzzle

November 17, 2017
By Marcy Shortuse

Skilled carpenters are in short supply. The price of materials is rising. Empty lots are disappearing. The easiest thing about building in Boca Grande’s Historic District these days may well be the process for obtaining permits.
At least that’s the goal of the Lee County Community Development Department, which supervises renovation and construction in Boca Grande’s Historic District.
Earlier this year, oversight for the district was reassigned from Lee County Planning to the Zoning Department. It was, to some, a surprising change that followed the retirement of several veteran members of the Lee County planning and zoning staff.
The intent of the move was better customer service, says Audra Ennis, Lee County’s new zoning manager. “It was a departmental decision and truly done to provide a more comprehensive and seamless customer service experience. Additionally, the processes and procedures for historic cases align more with those of other cases handled by the zoning staff.
“Regardless of what section is handling the work, the same codes apply,” she says, adding that there have been no complaints thus far about the change.
Three documents drive construction in historic Boca Grande. The first, the U. S. Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, was developed in 1977 and revised six years later. Its overall mission is to preserve a building’s important or “character-defining” architectural materials and features, while accommodating modern lifestyles.
Not all communities rely on the Secretary’s standards, says Ennis. “Lee County chose them because they were a good fit for our preservation efforts.”
The County also follows the Boca Grande Design Guidelines Manual completed in June 1993 by James F. Soller, an architect, and members of the Lee County staff.
Like the Secretary’s standards, the guidelines provide homeowners and contractors with an understanding of the County’s approach to projects involving historic buildings and new structures.
“Guidelines” is the operative word. There can be flexibility in interpreting the recommendations. When neighbors recently expressed safety concerns about the construction of a new garage that opened onto a narrow alley, the Historic Preservation Board encouraged county planners to seek an alternative. A compromise was reached. Instead of using the alley, which is the established practice, the homeowner was allowed to egress onto a county street.
Finally, the Lee County Land Development Code, Chapter 22, is the meat-and-potatoes document for construction in Boca Grande’s Historic District. It offers relief from building and zoning codes for the owners of historic properties. It also sets standards for renovation of nonhistoric structures and new construction.
Observers say that while the guidelines and codes may seem onerous at times, they provide a beneficial trade-off. A property remains historic, but Chapter 22 gives property owners significant latitude in making changes.
“The entitlements and incentives provide a legitimate way for people to pull permits for buildings that don’t really comply with the modern codes,” an observer commented.
A few critics contend that there is sometimes too much leeway. Suddenly a historic cottage undergoing simple renovation is taken down to its bare bones, with the need for major structural changes attributed to “termite and weathering damage.”
A Lee County staff report on a recent case involving a renovation from 20 years ago even noted: “Previous interpretations of the regulations … have led to buildings retaining their contributing [historic] status when as little as one piling was retained from the original structure.”
As real estate booms in Boca Grande and historic homes change ownership, such concerns may continue to fester.
But Audra Ennis says it’s all about following the rules. If an owner or builder discovers there is a problem during construction, “the applicant is required to provide proof that the structure in question is beyond repair or salvage.” The proof is in the form of the opinion of a qualified expert such as a building inspector, architect, engineer or other professional.
One of the most significant benefits for a historic home in Boca Grande is relief from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) 50-percent rule. The rule targets homes in flood zones.
Contributing structures are exempt from meeting the FEMA flood elevations that require homes on Boca Grande to be 10 to 17 feet NAVD (North American Vertical Datum).
However, renovation of a noncontributing home that does not meet the current FEMA height requirements is limited to a cost equal to or less than 50 percent of the appraised value of the structure.
David Benner of Safety Harbor Builders says he explains to his clients who want to remodel a noncontributing home that “for every square foot that you want to add on, you are not going to be able to touch two square feet that is there. That’s pretty much how it works.
“FEMA doesn’t want redevelopment of homes in a coastal environment. I think this rule is insurance-driven too,” says Benner, who has been a builder in Boca Grande for 30 years.
“But the mantra for many is livability. If your grill is sitting in your garage and you have to bring the food down 10 feet to cook, you aren’t going to do it. If it’s next to the kitchen or you have a nice outdoor grilling area, that’s a different thing.”
Building in Boca Grande’s Historic District begins with a visit to the Department of Community Development in Fort Myers. In 2016, there were 194 requests for permits in all of Lee County. No individual data are available for Boca Grande.
The Lee County staff determines if a request will be handled as a regular or special Certificate of Appropriateness (COA). A regular COA is processed administratively and is limited to ordinary maintenance and repair. All other requests require a special COA.
The prospective builder completes an application and provides documents that illustrate the scope of a project. Typically a complete application package includes architectural elevations and floor plans, a site plan and/or property survey, a narrative describing the project, photographs of the property and other relevant materials.
Once an application is submitted, the case is scheduled for public hearing. Staff prepares an analysis of the project and makes a recommendation to the Historic Preservation Board. This report is also made available for public review.
At the hearing before the Preservation Board, the applicant and County staff make a presentation. Members of the public can also express opinions. The Board then votes to accept or deny the applicant’s request.
“The decision by the Historic Preservation Board is final, barring an appeal by the applicant to a hearing examiner,” Ennis explains. “Once the Board has made its decision, it must be followed by both the applicant and the County staff.”
For some, like David Benner, building in the historic district is like “solving a puzzle. There are endless possibilities if you do your homework. It’s about trying to give people what they want. And I’ve found that the County is there to help within the rules that have been established,” he says.