Surprise South Bethany vote returns mandatory freeboard to table

Barely three months after South Bethany gave people the option to build taller homes with flood-resistant freeboard, Town Council is considering mandatory freeboard.

Not all councilmembers are happy about it.

After many months and hours of debate, Town Council passed Ordinance 172-14 in August, “which allowed two additional feet of building height if owners included two additional feet of freeboard on a voluntary basis,” wrote Mayor Pat Voveris.

The divisive topic was resurrected at an Oct. 23 workshop to discuss new floodplain ordinances. As Council reviewed a 40-plus-page draft — which Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires for all towns in the National Flood Insurance Program — discussion returned to mandatory freeboard.

“FEMA does not demand freeboard, but they and DNREC highly recommend 12 to 18 inches,” George Junkin said.

Jim Gross suggested that the document include 2 feet of mandatory freeboard. Tony Caputo, Tim Saxton and Al Rae agreed.

Voveris protested, claiming that it had not been discussed in the context of FEMA’s draft.

Gross said freeboard has been discussed for a year.

Not here at this meeting, Voveris said.

Despite the option, people are still building without freeboard, said Code Enforcement Constable Joe Hinks. And it’s not out of ignorance.

Hinks said the Town’s Floor-Area Ratio (FAR) discouraged at least one person from building a higher, safer house. That’s because the house footprint would be smaller to accommodate a higher staircase.

“So how the house is designed was more important that that to them,” Sue Callaway asked.

“Yeah,” Hinks said.

“They’ll be sorry,” Caputo murmured.

“People build to the code,” which Junkin said is supposed to protect people. “If we don’t consider [that], the council is not doing its job.”

Council already is protecting the people by offering optional freeboard, Callaway said.

If freeboard is mandatory, Saxton said Council must revisit everything, including FAR, Livable Area Ratio, number of bathrooms and more.

“I don’t think it’s as simple as saying it’s 2 feet,” Saxton said.

“Be prepared,” for that discussion, Callaway warned. For instance, if staircases are allowed in the setbacks due to freeboard, residents will request that for other reasons, like making room for a handicap ramp.

Councilmembers suggested benefits of mandatory freeboard: discounts on flood insurance, increased property values and more.

The vote forward

Callaway and Voveris voted against the 5-2 measure.

“I was very surprised that the subject even came up and was not comfortable [voting],” Voveris said afterward.

As for council saving homeowners from themselves, “I don’t see it was that way,” Voveris said. “I see that as overreach of government.”

Mandatory freeboard “always met with resistance, even on the Sea Level Rise Committee, which couldn’t come to consensus,” Voveris said.

Within the next week, Voveris emailed residents with the new information.

“As mayor I feel it is my responsibility to notify the town,” Voveris said, especially as fewer property owners spend winter in South Bethany. “So they know what their government is doing.”

“At the October 23, 2014, Town Council Workshop Meeting, the Council by majority vote (5 to 2) reversed its previous position allowing for voluntary use of freeboard and moved to develop the new Floodplain Ordinance requiring the mandatory use of freeboard,” she wrote. “It is important to note that FEMA does not require the mandatory use of freeboard.”

Voveris strongly encouraged residents to attend the public meetings, plus contact her and the council with their opinions.

FEMA’s requirement and DNREC’s request

All towns wishing to remain in the National Flood Insurance Program must enact FEMA’s new requirements. In addition, Delaware Department of Natural Resources sent a draft ordinance with its own requests — but not demands. All coastal towns are researching how these measures best fit their codes.

This process does not scrap the existing code, but adjusts much of it.

“The more you change,” the longer the approval process, Junkin said. “We can rework it to suit us. We just can't do anything that’ll cause us to violate — to have FEMA kick us out.”

For instance, the State only recommends that houses can be removed from the floodplain if they are raised 18 inches above the current level. Junkin said the SLR Committee disagrees and believes that exclusion should remain at 1 inch. People still have to apply to FEMA for that designation, but Town Code can mandate the number.

“What if the Sea level rises?” Caputo asked.

FEMA can still change its policies, but currently anything being built is already grandfathered in, Junkin said. (Unless Congress tries to remove the grandfathering clause again, to previously disastrous results.)

The next step

Rather than discuss every single detail, Council reviewed the major points. They decided to request a joint meeting of the Sea Level Rise Committee and Charter & Code Committee.

The Council admired that its DNREC-hired consultant, Rebecca Quinn, responded so quickly with her draft comments.

Junkin planned to ask her Council’s initial questions before the joint committee meeting.

The ordinance is still subject to the usual public process: public notifications in the newspaper “Legals” section, posters at Town Hall, public hearing and three official readings at different Council meetings.

Discussion will continue at 10 a.m. Monday, Nov. 17, at the public Planning Commission meeting.