RCAP Database | Key West Case Study of RR-7

Initiative: Height Restriction Exemption for Raising Buildings above Flood

Contact Name: 
Alison Higgins
Contact Email: 

You’ve finally brought something to me that’s at a level I can comprehend, using doll houses and cartoons.

- Planning Board Member

Quick Facts & Statistics

  • Nearly 80% of the City is currently located within the Special Flood Hazard Area.
  • With 218 repetitive loss properties out of 8,000 flood policies, our city remains but one storm away from the number of these properties going from a couple of hundred to a few thousand.


Key West cares about its skyline and has enacted building height restrictions that can only be changed by referendum. Any mention of tinkering with this restriction immediately brews suspicion that developers are trying to create loopholes for huge condos.

Yet tinkering was necessary.  The Biggert-Waters flood insurance hikes could only be solved by raising homes, but the 25-foot height limitation created a ceiling that essentially squished the options in the single-family district.  To solve this, staff needed to create very specific language and do a lot of outreach to see that the ballot item passed.

Implementation Process

Expecting misgivings, staff assembled a large working group to hash out the details and come to a consensus. Environmentalists, Quality of life sentinels, historic preservationists, realtors, contractors, business owners and home owners. Not only was the group strongly in favor of creating a loophole for those that wanted to raise their homes, they urged staff to go beyond the 2-foot limit proposed to a 4’ above BFE.  All also strongly agreed that the entire height could not go higher than 40’.  While this seems like a large jump from a 25’ restriction, many of the homes actually lay in our lowest areas, with their first floor at AE8 (8’ below base flood), which means they would need 11’ to get 4’ out.

To help with the original meetings, and later with outreach, the City’s FEMA liaison created many visual tools, including a video that detailed how this initiative helped individual homeowners and, our favorite, the building blocks.  The building block house and its associated height pegboard let staff and citizens play out any scenarios that seemed questionable.  The video and building blocks were invaluable to presenting facts to the vocal minority that was sure City staff was in developers’ pockets and that skyscrapers would be popping up in no time.  In the end, the ballot measure passed by 81%.

Implementation Timeline

The pre-ballot process took 11 months.  Our entire timeline hinged upon getting onto the County’s November ballot, so we planned backward from that date.  After ballot passage, we still had to update the City’s Land Development Regulations, pass them through Planning Board and City Commission, and then send them to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity for acceptance.  This happened in early 2015, making the whole process ~18 months long.

Implementation Funding

All of the pre-work was staff time.  Even getting on the ballot was free because we aligned with the County’s schedule.  To actually raise the homes will be the duty of the homeowner, but we are now looking at financing mechanisms like revolving loans or tax increment funding districts to help homeowners accrue the capital needed to get their homes out of the flood zone.

Community Benefits

On an individual level, a homeowner that raises above BFE can save 60-62% off their insurance.  For each foot above BFE, private insurance costs drop until the 3’ level.  The city allowed 4’ because we expect to lose 1’ when remapped by FEMA, so that 4’ becomes the new 3’, still preserving the homeowners’ investment.  On the community level, providing a path to raising homes out of the flood zone helps the City’s Community Rating System (CRS) ranking, which can lead to federal insurance breaks across the entire city, whether you have raised your house or not.