South Bethany’s mandatory freeboard is off the table — for now, at least

The will of the people has been heard. The South Bethany Town Council voted unanimously Nov. 20 to remove, at this time, the proposed mandatory 2 feet of freeboard from its draft floodplain ordinance.

The controversial proposal was deleted due to time constraints, officials noted. FEMA has mandated that all towns wishing to remain in the National Flood Insurance Program must pass a larger floodplain ordinance, meant to encourage safer building standards.

Towns are not required under the FEMA guidelines to mandate any freeboard.

The topic arose a month ago, at the October council workshop, months after the August vote allowing homeowners add 2 additional feet of building height when building 2 additional feet of freeboard, on a voluntary basis.

Councilwoman Sue Callaway and Mayor Pat Voveris had voted against resurrecting the topic, calling it an overreach of council.

This week, Councilmam Jim Gross told residents, “None of the five of us [who originally voted in favor] have anything to gain. … We intend to do what we thought was right, the right being to mitigate the flood. Both FEMA and the State of Delaware have strongly recommended that there be freeboard.”

Freeboard is the additional amount of height above the base flood elevation that a structure’s lowest floor is elevated or flood-proofed. South Bethany would have required it on all new buildings or substantial improvements (those worth 50 percent or more of the building’s current value).

“You have a process where the council listened to the people,” Voveris said after this week’s vote.

The decision came so early in the meeting that Voveris repeated the outcome to latecomers to the meeting. She called it “commendable” that the council came together in a unanimous decision.

That includes champions of mandatory freeboard Councilmen George Junkin and Jim Gross.

“It’s not that I don’t think mandatory freeboard is the right thing to do,” Junkin said. “It’s just that, due to the time constraint, we don’t have time to get there, trying to convince people that mandatory freeboard is the thing for us.”

“There’s a lot of misinformation about why we’re doing this thing this time of year,” said Councilmember Al Rae. “The Town received letters from FEMA and DNREC in September that ‘you now have six months…’ That’s why we’re doing it now. It’s not like we’re waiting for everyone to get out of town. … We’re doing it to represent your best interest.”

He suggested the Town create information sheets on such topics as freeboard.

“Nobody was saying freeboard is a bad idea,” said resident Kent Stephen. “We’re saying we don’t want to you to make us do it.”

Junkin had emailed residents about his position, stating that additional freeboard would lower flood insurance rates and prevent homeowner hassles.

“Base flood elevations (BFEs) in South Bethany have increased 3 feet in the last 30 years. Freeboard would have kept homeowners from having homes that are now below BFE,” he wrote.

“Statistically, homes that are built to the minimum BFE standards will see damage from flooding in their lifetime” — something that Junkin knows from experience, when he made a substantial improvement to his own house in 2001.

Despite Junkin’s 14-page email on the benefits of freeboard, many residents weren’t convinced.

“You haven’t come close to showing us why we have to have freeboard,” Stephen said.

Bob Coleman said he felt it was “premature” to mandate freeboard when it was only recommended by FEMA. He asked council about South Bethany’s rating with FEMA. If it’s far enough below a certain threshold, he said, mandatory freeboard wouldn’t be enough to raise the rating anyway.

Resident Larry Covelli said he couldn’t see how it would improve property values. If people can’t afford to add mandatory freeboard during substantial home improvement, they might never renovate, Covelli said.

He left the meeting early, content that mandatory freeboard was struck down.

“It doesn’t do anyone a bit of good,” Covelli said. “They never proved what it was good for.”

Covelli said he still felt that the council deliberately acted while people were away.

Coleman agreed, citing that freeboard was made voluntary in August, when part-time residents were in town, but resurrected months later. Both men said they have about one foot of freeboard.

Earlier in the week, the South Bethany Planning Commission had also reaffirmed its earlier position against mandatory freeboard. With the alarm raised, citizens had flooded the Nov. 14 council meeting, most opposing the measure, and with emotions running high.

Barbara Junkin said she hopes to never see that atmosphere again.

“I thought the audience was horrendous overall. They treated the council horrendously,” she said. “It was awful.”

“People were upset that the will of the people wasn’t done,” Coleman told the Coastal Point later.

Committee member Dick Oliver defended the council members, although he himself fought against mandatory freeboard.

“None of these people have any dogs in the fight. They’re honorable people doing the best thing for the town, and I hope people in the town — in the audience — understand that,” he said.

“I was not at the meeting, but I heard some of them were abused,” said Jay Headman. That is why they have a democracy and a council with seven votes, he said.

“Sea-level rise is a new concept,” Voveris said, thanking residents for their input. “It’s important not to overstep, because you can’t go back.”

With the contentious topic laid aside, the council began cleaning up the proposed ordinances. They unanimously approved a draft ordinance, as well as the public hearing schedule for possible approval of a final ordinance. The council must approve three readings of the proposed ordinance, which are now scheduled for Dec. 12, Jan. 29 (a rescheduled workshop) and Feb. 13. The public hearing will also be Jan. 29, 2015.

Step back from

the setback

The council at their workshop also voted down a proposal to allow staircases in property setbacks (with 2 additional feet of freeboard).

The proposal was meant to encourage freeboard, Junkin said. The council has heard that, despite the extra 2 feet allowed in height, some builders hesitate to add freeboard because they’d have to include a few extra stairs in their housing footprint, which means a smaller house.

The staircase can cut into floor-area ratio (FAR) and livable area ratio (LAR).

Callaway echoed her previous concerns that she said the council must consider carefully. Many people would like to utilize their setback, whether they add freeboard, or not. She mentioned handicapped access ramps and an old debate about clotheslines.

“If we’re going to do it for freeboard and new construction, why not do it across the town, equitably, if you want to do steps in the setback?” Voveris asked.

But several council members said allowances added to setbacks could be a slippery slope and that they wanted more information before proceeding.

Councilman Timothy Saxton said he liked the measure to encourage mandatory freeboard but that he believes council should revisit all of the related building code, including FAR, LAR and more.

“I believe this is part of a comprehensive change in the building code. … We need to think this through, so it’s in the package,” Saxton said.

Gross disagreed with that approach.

“Then nothing will get done,” he said, preferring to enact changes as they come.

Junkin and Gross voted for the measure, which was defeated, 5-2.