South Bethany awaits news as consultant drops FEMA case

After hiring an independent consultant to analyze its Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM), the Town of South Bethany is at a standstill.

Taylor Engineering’s June report suggested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) could use different methods to determine South Bethany’s base flood elevation (BFE).

Oceanfront land in the town was originally designated at 12 feet BFE (setting the minimum height of a home’s lowest floor). But FEMA’s decision to lower the BFE to 10 feet was questioned by a council member (based on historical flooding and other data), which prompted FEMA to raise the number to 13 feet. After some minor arm-twisting, FEMA agreed to restart the mapping process. The oceanfront is temporarily back at 12 feet, until FEMA officially proposes new numbers and re-opens the appeals process.

But even if residents or the Town appeal, there is no guarantee that the numbers would go as low as property owners want. Now, Taylor Engineering has stepped out of the equation, choosing not to help the Town appeal, if the town council decides to do so.

“I didn’t find the letter particularly encouraging,” Mayor Pat Voveris said at the Sept. 11 council meeting. “Basically, they said we can do some overtopping analysis. They said they wouldn’t do it, because they’re moving on to other things with FEMA.”

The consultant didn’t believe South Bethany will be offered 10 feet on the oceanfront again, but would likely suggest 11 to 13 feet, Voveris said.

“Based solely on historical evidence, this [10-foot] estimate does not appear reasonable,” wrote the firm, due to historical evidence of overtopping, plus the unlikelihood of ocean water only ever going a few inches above the road.

“Does South Bethany have solid grounds for an appeal?” the Town had asked.

While Taylor Engineering wouldn’t commit to a one-word answer, the firm’s opinion was that maps should use particular data on overtopping, in which waves crest over the dunes.

Voveris noted that FEMA won’t include in its analysis the sand dunes, which were built to protect South Bethany but are still considered too impermanent in FEMA’s eye.

“Between this and the June report, if they [FEMA] base it on the 2005 topography, you’re going to have flooding like you did in the ‘90s. If you can count the dune, then you won’t,” said Councilman George Junkin. “If you have to stick to the [no dune], you can’t win.”

“We’ve got a lot of homeowners who think this is a very important issue,” said resident Ed Bintz, who has personally spent several thousands of dollars on the issue. “This is very much alive, and we need to be sending materials to the town council.”

Having heard that each insurance increase reduces the home value many-fold, Bintz said he is very invested in the issue that has put his home under the BFE.

Bintz emphasized that the Town and residents could show the “capricious” nature of the differing designations between South Bethany and Bethany Beach, which got a lower BFE in the new maps. He also questioned the reliability of a company that contracts with FEMA.

Property owners have hired an independent consultant, so they are waiting to see what suggestions that may produce.

Voveris said the town council wants to help residents who come forward, but ultimately it comes down to the expense of an appeal.

The official dates for appeals could begin at any time, but have not been officially set, since FEMA must post public notice in a register that was expected to be published around September.

In other South Bethany news:

• A recent town code review has raised 90 issues/questions with the town laws (for example, does the sign ordinance violate the U.S. Constitution). The Charter & Code Committee is beginning to prioritize those concerns needing a response. Town Solicitor Dennis Schrader said he believes the committee can handle the changes without needing to outsource.

• Lifeguards were in short supply on most beaches on Labor Day weekend. The 12 employees who did return for the weekend drove back from their schools or teaching jobs, said Town Manager Mel Cusick. But a full staff just isn’t available in late summer, even at a higher pay, he said.

• The Town has about 6 miles of streets with overhead utility wires. The Planning Commission is beginning to research the cost and time schedule for moving them underground over the next few years.

• A public outreach meeting for flood damage mitigation and insurance costs will be held Friday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m. and again on Saturday, Sept. 26, at 10 a.m. at South Bethany Town Hall. Topics include Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs); mitigating flood risks (building and flood insurance); and improving resiliency (building elevations, freeboard and grant money). Public notices will be sent via email or through the mail.

• Police Chief Troy Crowson said the Town recently obtained a boat, which was free, apart from some cosmetic improvements. The boat can be used for bulkhead inspections or looking for missing persons — activities for which the Town typically relies on the kindness of residents to lend a boat. If it proves impractical, the boat can be liquidated.

• The police department expects $18,306 from the 2016 Fund to Combat Violent Crimes, which will buy four new Motorola communication devices, plus remote-controlled “stop sticks” to deflate tires in chases.

• Based on some confusion about whether resident Jay Headman was appealing his building permit or a fee, he was encouraged to clarify his request for an appeal. He is challenging the Town charging a $700 fee for him to appeal the original fee of $380.

The town council sets the fee schedule annually. There was brief discussion of fees in general.

“It’s time to look at the fees, not just for me, but for the rest of town,” said Headman, who for now, sad he just wanted an appropriate hearing scheduled so he can challenge the fee.