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Pawleys Island: Like flood insurance rates, houses may go higher

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

New houses in the town of Pawleys Island could rise by a foot or two in order to keep ahead of rising federal flood insurance premiums. It’s one of a range of measures the town plans to study this year to help earn a reduction in premiums.

“There are things you can do to reduce flood damage,” Mayor Bill Otis said. “It makes sense for FEMA … it makes sense for us.”

Property owners were braced for steep increases in premiums under the flood insurance program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Those were the result of a 2012 bill to reform the program so premiums would better reflect the actual risk. But President Obama last month signed a bill that makes the proposed changes more gradual.

“I consider all that to be fair warning,” Otis said. “It was not fair before because nobody had a chance to react.”

The town participates in FEMA’s Community Rating System that provides flood insurance discounts to property owners in communities that take steps to reduce flood damage. The town already requires new homes or homes where renovations exceed 50 percent of their current value to be elevated a foot above the height mandated by FEMA. For oceanfront homes, the mandate is 19 feet so the town requires the lowest part of the main floor to be 20 feet above mean sea level.

The town now has a Class 6 rating that provides a 20 percent premium discount. Ryan Fabbri, the town’s assistant administrator, last month became a FEMA-certified floodplain manager. He thinks the town can earn a Class 4 rating with a 30 percent discount. “There are a lot of places where we can hammer it and get a lot of points,” he told Town Council this week.

The town’s flood program got a five-year review from FEMA last year. Fabbri suggested the town ask the agency for another review in 2015. That will give the town time to look at other ways to earn points toward a lower rating.

Raising the building height 3 feet above the base flood elevation would earn 500 points. “It would be the most visible and the most productive for the property owner,” Otis said. The city of Myrtle Beach has a 3-foot requirement.

But if the bottom of a house is built higher, it means the roof will also be higher. “I think the cost of insurance is more of a concern than the aesthetics,” Otis said. “But it’s a balancing act.”

The town has also met with Georgetown County building officials who administer building permits on the town under contract to make sure the “certificates of elevation” that FEMA requires meet the agency’s rules. An error in a certificate last year could have cost the town its current rating, but it was corrected before the review.

“We’re going to develop a list of things [Fabbri] thinks we can do, that we can reasonably do, and what number of points would be available,” Otis said. Those will go to the town Planning Commission for review and require approval by Town Council.

The last time Otis ran the numbers, a 5 percent discount saved the town’s property owners a total of $60,000 in annual premiums. With premium increases inevitable, the review “comes at a good time,” Council Member Mike Adams said.

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