Nowhere does the future seem as tenuous as in Vilano Beach, where Hurricane Matthew left many homes literal cliffhangers. Dunes are eroded, foundations broken and exposed, and pilings stand like skeletal remains.
Some may question whether homeowners ought to rebuild. But they almost certainly can.
In theory, construction is prohibited east of what’s called the Coastal Construction Control Line. That line is set by the state Department of Environmental Protection, and designed to prevent construction of buildings that are “improperly sited … which can destabilize or destroy the beach and dune system.” The line was updated in 1988, and runs along what was thought to be the western reach of a 100-year storm.
That line is imaginary, though, in more ways than one. Virtually every damaged home was built east of the “do not build” line. Older homes were grandfathered in, newer homes were granted exemptions. Exemptions east of the line are allowed, assuming there is no alternate spot on a property to build. That’s the case for most properties along North Vilano, which are sandwiched between Coastal Highway A1A and the ocean – neither of which is moving anytime soon.
Denying coastal construction permit requests, while possible, is rarely done. That’s in part because of the Bert Harris Act, a tough pro-development law passed in 1995. Designed to protect property owners from losing their land via a “taking” by local government, it has been interpreted as a protection for any landowner deprived of the “highest and best use” of his or her land. If development is denied, local government can be sued for the full potential value of the developed land.
Roughly 50 homes have been tagged by St. Johns County building officials as possibly structurally unstable. As part of an emergency order signed Oct. 5, DEP has given county officials the ability to approve temporary fixes to homes, as well as to grant permission for seawalls and other protective structures for beach homes. More permanent fixes will require the approval of DEP.
Both county officials and state regulators say each rebuild decision will be made on a case by case basis. But as valuable as oceanfront property and homes are, few expect homeowners to simply walk away.
Kirstin McMullen, who owns one of the damaged homes, probably won’t. Surrounded by debris and broken decking, her home appears ruined. But McMullen says the inside is dry and safe, and she expects to rebuild.
“There’s a red notice on our house that says we have to get a structural engineer report to sign off to say it’s safe, but we’re pretty confident it will pass,” McMullen says. “For our house to survive -- we were shocked. We did not think it would survive, so we feel very, very lucky.”
Lucky, and ready to start over.