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New Smyrna Beach leaders pause new residential development to assess hurricane impacts

Freddie Bowlin's home filled with three feet of water during Hurricane Ian.
Amy Green
Freddie Bowlin's home filled with three feet of water during Hurricane Ian.

Across central Florida, communities are considering how to move forward after hurricanes Ian and Nicole left widespread flooding and damage.

In New Smyrna Beach, leaders voted unanimously Tuesday to pause new residential development while they examine hurricane impacts.  

Freddie Bowlin lost a lot when Hurricane Ian dropped a monumental 21 inches of rain on New Smyrna Beach in less than 24 hours. In a flash, his home filled with three feet of water.

"It looked like we were living in the middle of a lake."

As he and his wife fled to higher ground, his wife fell and disappeared for a moment beneath the rushing water. Bowlin feared he had lost her. Both made it to safety.

“If you want to see somebody break down and bring tears to your eyes real quick, that did to me. And I’ve been struggling with it since.”

During Hurricane Ian parts of New Smyrna Beach were inundated by as much as four feet of water. At least 215 residents were rescued by first responders. The coastal community is just south of Daytona Beach and sliced through by the Indian River Lagoon.

Now as residents contemplate repairs, city commissioners took a final vote Tuesday on a proposal to halt new residential development for six months in certain flood zones. The measure applies to projects of 10 acres or greater involving houses, condos and apartments.

The moratorium is aimed at allowing time for a consultant to review the city’s stormwater regulations and analyze how new residential development may have contributed to the historic flooding.

Mayor Fred Cleveland says some residents believe the new development in this historically swampy state has left stormwater with no place to go. But other residents think outdated drainage systems in older neighborhoods are to blame and need updating.

“We want to go back to the experts and say, Hey, have we built properly? Do we need to build differently going forward? Do we need to have a different rule set than we have today?”

It’s a remarkable step in Florida, where the economy is based in large part on growth and development and developers are powerful political players.

At the state level, inaction on climate change has prompted local governments like New Smyrna Beach to address warming temperatures, rising seas and more damaging hurricanes. And the Legislature has struck back with measures aimed at diminishing local authority on issues like clean energy.

In New Smyrna Beach, the development moratorium also comes as housing costs across Florida have sky-rocketed, leading to an affordable housing shortage. Glenn Storch is a New Smyrna Beach resident and real estate attorney. He says the measure could face legal challenges.

“When they do this they have to have a darn good reason for it. And that reason usually has to be something very important, very specific and you have to have a plan to solve the problem.”

In New Smyrna Beach, the moratorium is seeing widespread support. City commissioners voted unanimously in December to approve it during a first reading.

Donna Athearn is a New Smyrna Beach resident and chairwoman of the local Turnbull Creek Preservation Committee. She believes the moratorium is being closely watched as communities across central Florida grapple with similar issues after hurricanes Ian and Nicole.

“Yes I would think other developers are taking a look at the possibility that Florida’s construction laws are going to change. They’ll have to in order to accommodate these rising waters.”

She says every city in the state should be watching what happens in New Smyrna Beach.

Copyright 2023 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

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