Frustrated by the lack of progress on an administrative remedy, the Board of County Commissioners will consider legal options to address CBRA during the board’s next regular meeting.

Frustrated by the lack of progress on an administrative remedy, the Board of County Commissioners will consider legal options to address CBRA during the board’s next regular meeting.

The Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA), passed by Congress and implemented in the early 1980s, has been a thorn in the side of the board, and south Gulf County residents, for at least the past two decades.

CBRA aims to limit coastal development by greatly restricting the administration of federal funds; most specifically for the typical property owner that means limits on access to federal flood insurance.

Flood insurance which is required, in the vast majority of cases, for a mortgage.

At one time over the past 15 years, the private market for flood insurance all but dried up in Gulf County; according to Dr. Pat Hardman, president of the Coastal Community Association of South Gulf County, construction has slowed at times due to the impacts of CBRA.

And the county has argued for most of the past two decades that St. Joseph Peninsula, and later Indian Pass, should never have been included within a CBRA zone.

County administrator Don Butler told commissioners last week that the local implementation of CBRA seemed to have occurred with little public mention or debate.

There were no public meetings, he noted; public outcry in Franklin County, in significant measure, resulted in a large chunk of St. George Island, a barrier island, being excluded from a CBRA zone.

And as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) redrew flood maps over the years, more and more of the peninsula and Indian Pass have been excluded from development.

“CBRA has chipped away at our ability to move (forward) and develop,” Butler said.

The county was able to lobby FEMA for amendments to flood maps which returned “90 percent” of what had been lost, Butler added, but the impacts continue.

The proverbial straw came with the arrival of impacts from Hurricane Gustav in 2009, less than a year after the completion of a beach restoration project.

The storm took $15 million worth of the $26 million in sand that went into the restoration.

FEMA agreed to pay the bill.

However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and subsequently the Dept. of Interior overruled, saying the money should not be disbursed.

“There is an exception in the law for beach restoration,” said Warren Yeager, former commissioner representing the south coastal areas. “FEMA laid that out to Fish and Wildlife.

“If (reimbursement) had happened you would not be here now trying to remove the CBRA. The people of Gulf County would be far better off.”

The county lost two subsequent appeals of the Dept. of Interior decision.

“That’s when we started to think this CBRA has us screwed up,” Butler said.

The issue has had congressional exposure, with the county officials testifying before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives and prior Congressmen Allen Boyd and Steve Southerland both filing bills.

Southerland’s reached committee, but neither reached the House floor nor ever had a U.S. Senate companion bill, all but assuring the measure would go nowhere.

The failure of the Southerland bill was particularly frustrating for county officials as the request was to remove just 900 acres of the 46,000 acres in the county that are included in a CBRA zone.

The county’s argument is that CBRA should never have been a factor in Gulf County based on two key benchmarks: there aleady existed an array of infrastructure and building density at the time CBRA was implemented met the standards for not being included.

Or, at least that is the county’s interpretation of the conditions that existed.

“It boils down to interpretation and (the federal government’s) interpretation does not come down in our favor,” Butler said.

At this point, Butler said, given the money and time the county has expended lobbying Washington and regional offices in Atlanta, staff sees two choices.

One is do nothing and walk away.

The other is an alternative option, which county attorney Jeremy Novak said was “legal review.”

Novak said he would provide the board with legal options along with the potential costs and needed budget amendments at the Feb. 21 meeting.

Hardman urged commissioners to consider the economics.

“Forty-two percent of the county’s taxable value is in a CBRA area,” Hardman said. “If that goes down there you have problems.

“You have economic reasons to do this for the whole county. It’s the right thing to do.”

Yeager urged commissioners to consider the environmental stewardship that the county has demonstrated to its federal partners in the form of height restrictions, setbacks, and density requirements.

“Gulf County has been stewards and it is disheartening to have the lack of cooperation from our federal partners,” Yeager said. “The agencies are out of bounds and answering to no one.”