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Legislation could speed up historic buildings’ demise

Historic Public School No. 4 in Riverside.
Heather Henderson
Jacksonville Today
Historic Public School No. 4 in Riverside.

May is National Historic Preservation Month, but the state Senate has just approved a bill that historic-preservation advocates fear could put hundreds of significant buildings at risk of being demolished in the name of safety.

The Resiliency and Safe Structures Act (SB 1346) calls for knocking down buildings deemed unsafe or that are within a designated high-risk flood zone and don’t meet modern flood-elevation standards.

The wide-reaching bill could target anything from the long-abandoned Public School No. 4 in Riverside to the hopping Art Deco hotels of South Beach in Miami. Buildings that are knocked down would need to be replaced by new ones that do meet current flood standards, and local governments would not be allowed to require they fit the same architectural style of the historic structure they’re replacing.

There are some exceptions, however, including single-family homes and buildings on the National Register of Historic Places — which include local landmarks like the Florida Theatre and the American Red Cross Volunteer Life Saving Corps Station.

Additionally, any city that has at least three structures that are over 200 years old would be excluded, which means St. Augustine’s centuries-old buildings are safe, despite being at high risk of flooding during storms.

Even with the exemptions, St. Augustine Historic Preservation Officer Julie Courtney is dismayed.

“This still deeply concerns us because there's hundreds of buildings throughout Florida's coastal communities that will not be covered by this exemption,” Courtney said on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross.

St. Augustine's buildings may be safe, she said, but hundreds around the state — from Fernandina Beach to South Florida — could be at risk.

"Even Key West, the cool destination that many people go to, there are no buildings, from my understanding, that are 200 years or older," she said.

Courtney questioned why the Legislature was creating a conflict between historic preservation and resiliency.

"We work very hard as coastal communities to protect both our historic buildings but also to become stronger and reduce flood damage," she said. "We are addressing both issues. And we would like to be able to do so in the future."

Courtney said the Historic Preservation Office has made its views known to legislators, but more and more legislation is proposed each year that limits municipalities' power to follow their own ordinances, she said.

Among Northeast Florida's senators, only Democratic Sen. Tracie Davis of Jacksonville voted no. Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, and Sen. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, voted yes.

The bill still must be considered in the House. "Once that is passed, there's really no turning back," Courtney said.