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Pawleys Island: Town hopes disaster plan will soften spike in flood insurance rates

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

In the face of disaster, the town of Pawleys Island is prepared to fund a beach nourishment plan without federal help. That’s the message the town is prepared to send the federal government as a way to hold down expected increases in federal flood insurance.

A draft resolution under review by Town Council pledges the town to carry out a beach nourishment program if 75 percent of the dunes system on the island’s 3.5 miles of beach are destroyed. Along with $7.4 million in its current reserve, the town will borrow money to carry out the project.

The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act began phasing out subsidized rates for second homes and those on Pawleys Island with coverage that predates the adoption of the Flood Insurance Rate Maps in 1989. As property owners began to complain about higher premiums, Congress began looking at bills to delay Biggert-Waters.

“Property owners will be dramatically impacted by the Biggert-Waters Act,” Mayor Bill Otis said. “It is up to us to do whatever we can to moderate that.”

Under the new law, the sale of property also ends subsidized flood insurance rates. Council Member Howard Ward said one buyer on the island’s south end was facing a $42,000 annual premium. He told Ward at that rate he could replace the existing structure in five years. “He said, ‘I’m just going to be self-insured,’” Ward said.

One way to offset the increases is to see that new Flood Insurance Rate Maps due to be adopted for the South Carolina coast next year are accurate. The state Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for floodplain management, is soliciting information from local governments to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency prepare the new maps.

Changes to the flood maps could have as much impact as the Biggert-Waters Act, said Ryan Fabbri, the assistant town administrator. He handles the town’s flood management program, which earns property owners a 20 percent discount on their federal flood insurance premiums.

“We have most of the information they were looking for,” Fabbri said. “They basically want to know we have a beach renourishment plan” with funds to pay for it.

A $8.98 million beach nourishment project for 1.4 miles on the town’s narrow south end was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2006, but it was never funded by Congress. The town and the state would share $3.1 million of the cost.

The town adopted a local 3-percent tax on short-term rentals in 1999 and designated the revenue for beach nourishment and storm damage repairs. The town’s reserve is intended to match federal funds for such projects, but has continued to grow with no federal funds forthcoming. The town added $500,000 to its reserves at the end of 2013.

The resolution under review by the council shows the town is willing to move forward with beach nourishment on its own, but it also sets a high threshold. The 75 percent loss “is a significant event. It’s a disaster,” Otis said.

“If we lost the dunes on 75 percent of the island,” he said, “owners would be in an abject state of panic.”

The town would have to act regardless of federal funding, he said.

The town hopes to further reduce the premiums paid by island property owners through FEMA’s Community Rating System, the program that earned the current 20 percent discount. Fabbri is getting certified as a flood plain manager, which will earn the town points toward a further 5 percent premium reduction.

The town is also moving forward with plans for a non-binding vote of property owners on a project that will move electric and cable television lines underground throughout the island.

It’s a $4.2 million project that will be managed by Santee Cooper. It includes installing a supply line over the North Causeway to provide a “double-loop” system.

The council agreed to spend $1,530 with the Brandon Agency to create a brochure to send to property owners before the vote.

Fabbri’s wife works for Brandon, and he said it was the simplest option for getting the work done.

“We could do it ourselves, but it wouldn’t look that good,” he said.

Ward said from his experience working with ad agencies the price is fair.

“That seems reasonable to me,” Council Member Sarah Zimmerman said. “So much of this project is going to boil down to ‘what will it cost me.’ ”

While the brochure will show before and after images created by Santee Cooper, she said the focus needs to be on the finances.

The project is expected to cost property owners $3,500 over 10 years. The town will fund $2.4 million of the project cost.

With a show of support from property owners, the town could begin work this fall. The project will take about six years since no work will take place during the summer.

The town will have to give Santee Cooper the funds for each phase in advance of construction. To keep more cash on hand, the town will join the state’s Local Government Investment Pool.

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