South Bethany gets a mulligan on flood maps

Just weeks before new flood maps were to be enacted in South Bethany, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has agreed to wind back the clock. FEMA has rescinded the “final determination” that previously raised the base flood elevation (BFE) for oceanfront homes in the town, at the Town’s urging and under pressure from Delaware’s Congressional delegation.

BFE is the elevation to which floodwaters are expected to rise during a 100-year flood. For years, Ocean Drive had a BFE of 12 feet. Houses had to be built starting no lower than that elevation or pay high flood-insurance premiums.

FEMA considered lowering several South Bethany zones (most notably Ocean Drive to VE-10) during a large-scale rewrite of Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) in August of 2013. However, a councilmember’s “inquiry” about the lightened restrictions caused FEMA to actually up the BFE, to 13 feet instead of 10.

Public outcry has encouraged FEMA to start the official process again.

“Right now, it’s going to be the 12-foot map in place until this process is resolved,” noted Town Solicitor D. Barrett Edwards IV.

“When the new Sussex County maps come out on March 16 … South Bethany’s maps are basically going to be unchanged. They’ll be the same maps they’ve had since 2005,” Edwards said.

Very soon thereafter, FEMA will issue a new proposed preliminary FIRM for South Bethany, which will likely include the unpopular September numbers.

Mounting an appeal

This spring, FEMA will also schedule a community outreach meeting for property owners.

“They’re going to meet with residents. They’re going to explain the changes. This is the chance for any resident to speak to FEMA,” Edwards said.

FEMA will publish two public notices about the maps in the local newspaper, and that’s an important milestone in the process.

“That starts the clock ticking on a 90-day appeal period,” Edwards said.

That marks the property owners’ chance to strike, “for any owner or lessee of real property within the community who believes their property rights to be adversely affected by the proposed determination,” FEMA officials wrote.

Appellants must get expert analysis to prove FEMA could measure the risk more accurately.

They will first submit appeals to the Town of South Bethany. The Town will then forward the appeal to FEMA but also itself “has the opportunity to weigh in and decide whether they think the appeal has merit,” Edwards said. “If the Town decides it’s ‘with merit,’ the Town has the power to file an appeal on behalf of the property owner.”

He requested that people not wait and submit their appeals on Day 89.

After FEMA resolves any appeals, it will issue a new Notice of Final Determination (as it did in September of 2014). Six months later, the new maps could be enacted (perhaps around summer of 2016, if everything proceeds smoothly, Edwards estimated).

However, FEMA experts may need months or even a year to study the appeals, which would stretch the timeline.

If people still aren’t happy, the matter could potentially go to a federal district court.

“Truthfully, I thought they were just going to tell us to pack sand, and it is what it is. … The fact that they gave us a 90-day window — it’s at least something. … Let the process run its course,” Edwards said. “The purpose of this process is to get the correct result. I don’t know if that’s 13, 10, 9 [feet].”

Mayor Pat Voveris noted that there are other changes, but Ocean Drive is the distinguishing characteristic on these maps.

Rumbling from Ocean Drive

Residents are still smarting from the fallout of Councilman George Junkin’s “inquiry” to FEMA, in which he wrote, “The Town of South Bethany has two concerns … that the oceanfront homes should be VE-12, not VE-10. The second is that an area at the south end just west of Ocean Dr. should be AO-2, not AE-7.”

He included photos of storm damage, elevation data and comments from Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control.

However, the letter authored and sent by Junkin was not signed by the mayor, town engineer or an attorney.

Junkin is a proponent of storm-surge and sea-level-rise preparedness, which is why he asked about FEMA’s reasons for lowering the BFE. However, FEMA took that inquiry to be an appeal, and residents only read about the resulting increase in the Town newsletter.

“We were not involved in any way as property owners,” said Robin Greenhall, Ocean Drive resident. “We were not informed, to the best of my knowledge … until one of the residents stumbled upon the information.

“I don’t see where it was damaging to the Town in any way for the FEMA BFE to take effect. For property owners, it would mean flood insurance rates are lower,” Greenhall said.

Greenhall’s home was built in 2014, the top of her bottom floor resting at 13 feet, 2 inches. She said she wasn’t part of the decision to build above the 12-foot minimum.

“I just relied on the contractors and engineers to build our home,” she explained, stating that they had had constant discussions with the Town, DNREC and others involved. “There’s a lot of strict guidelines. I just left it up to the experts to work that out.”

But she’s still upset about losing that attractive VE-10 designation.

Even if houses are grandfathered in at their current height, homeowners can face a loss of potential insurance savings.

“There’s a big difference, being 3 feet above [BFE]. Otherwise it’s just 2 inches,” she said.

Plus, if she were buying a home, she would think twice about buying one that was technically built at less than FEMA requirements.

She also noted that Junkin did not encourage FEMA to consider the newly installed sand dunes.

Answering other questions about the issue, Voveris said flood insurance was increasing anyway, though South Bethany is working with FEMA and U.S. legislators to slightly ease that burden.

But as long as people build to the current code, she said, she didn’t see why they should pay exorbitant fees.

FEMA’s not supposed to be self-serving, but as an agency is charged with protecting people who live in vulnerable areas, Voveris said.

“We can appeal, and we can object … but they are the final determination,” Voveris said.

“We may have another storm and they’ll change it again,” she added. “Living on the ocean, it’s a privilege; but you run a huge risk.”

Some residents were upset that they could end up paying more, despite having relatively little damage, compared with more disaster-prone areas of the U.S.

“We have never replaced a board. We have never placed a claim,” said resident Susan Brune of Ocean Drive.

“You’re very lucky,” Voveris said.

But the higher the structure, the better, said bayside resident Joel Danshes.

“The changes FEMA’s proposing are actually good for the community, because it’s raising building standards, … so you’re not flooded in the event of an emergency. Is that right?” asked Danshes.

“That’s a matter of opinion,” Edwards said. “The higher a house is built, the less likely [it is] to have flooding, so that is a good thing, yes.”

Residents and property owners can visit to find a “FEMA Mapping Update.”

In other South Bethany news:

• The Charter & Ordinance Committee is taking a strict look at wood-burning fire pits. Discussion was to continue at the town council’s workshop on Thursday, March 26, at 5 p.m.

• At no cost to the Town, Delmarva Power has said it is willing to replace 12 streetlights around the Cat Hill area of town. However, council tabled discussion of the issue until they get a few more details, including potential costs of moving the lights closer to the road, away from house windows.

As the current lamps show a variety of styles, ages and levels of disrepair, Callaway called this a good chance for residents to test a new lamp style. The Community Enhancement Committee recommended a wrought-iron style, similar to that used in Rehoboth Beach.

With new LED bulbs, the cost could increase by about $5 per lamp, per month.

Gross wanted more details before voting, including exact costs, lamp design and overall community desires.

• The police department’s newest hire, Nathan Hudson, has already completed training and is on the road. Meanwhile, its other recent hire, Megan Loulou, has begun her training at the Delaware State Police Academy.

• South Bethany’s dunes were included as part of DNREC’s dune grass planting this year.