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Flood insurance: County looks at higher building heights

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The decision by the town of Pawleys Island to require new and remodeled homes to be built higher off the ground to reduce potential flood damage has Georgetown County looking at a similar move. It could lead to property owners paying lower premiums under the federal flood insurance program.

“There’s been a lot of internal discussion,” said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director. The county is up for review this year for its participation in the Community Rating System, a program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency that discounts flood insurance premiums in jurisdictions that take steps to reduce damage.

Georgetown County is currently at Class 8, which equals a 10 percent premium discount. Pawleys Island, which was reviewed by FEMA last year, is at Class 6, which gives owners a 20 percent premium discount.

The county would like to get a lower rating. “That’s everybody’s goal,” Johnson said. But as Pawleys Island learned last year, the rating system has changed and local governments have to do more to maintain their existing ratings. “It’s going to be harder to achieve,” Johnson said.

The first place the county will look in its effort to keep its current rating is what Johnson called, “the low-hanging fruit,” which includes programs to increase public awareness for flood issues.

A decision on building height will likely await the release of new flood insurance rate maps for the county. Those maps have been done everywhere in the state but the coastal counties. FEMA lists spring of 2015 for final approval of maps for the county. They would establish the “base flood elevation,” the height of the bottom of the first floor above sea level, that the county has to enforce to be eligible for the federal flood program.

The town made reducing its CRS rating a priority after Congress passed a reform bill that shifted the flood insurance program toward rates that more accurately reflect the risk of damage. After an outcry from constituents, lawmakers delayed implementation of the bill. Town Council gave the first of two readings to a change in the development ordinance that will require new houses to be built 3 feet above the “base flood elevation” set by FEMA. That would also apply to houses that are destroyed or renovated beyond 50 percent of their value.

The town will hold a public hearing on the change July 14. Mayor Bill Otis said he hasn’t heard any comment on the issue so far. The town already requires houses to be 1 foot above the base flood height.

“It sounds like a good idea to me,” County Council Member Jerry Oakley said. His district covers the coast north of Pawleys Island. Flood insurance “is obviously a very sensitive issue right now.”

There are just over 8,100 federal flood insurance policies issued in Georgetown County. The current CRS rating means those policyholders share a total of $601,000 in premium discounts, according to FEMA. The town of Pawleys Island has 478 policies and a total savings of $279,000 a year in premiums.

Aside from getting a discount, the CRS program promotes policies that reduce flood damage, Oakley noted. “It’s kind of a win-win,” he said.

Johnson said the county consulted with the town’s former CRS coordinator when it was rated five years ago. The county’s chief building inspector is also its CRS coordinator and Johnson said the county is considering getting help from Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments as it prepares for its review.

Tom Britton, the planning director at Waccamaw Regional, and Daniel Newquist, the agency’s water quality program coordinator, recently got certification from FEMA as floodplain managers. “We try and offer services that are needed by our member jurisdictions,” Britton said. “I do see it as a growth area.”

The paperwork required to maintain compliance with CRS is “very voluminous,” Britton said. “Unless you designate a person, for smaller towns or jurisdictions it can be overwhelming.”

Ryan Fabbri, the assistant administrator for Pawleys Island, became a certified floodplain manager this year. He will attend a CRS conference in Washington next month, looking for other ways the town can earn points and reduce its rating.

“We are beginning a fairly intensive process over the next six to eight months to identify the areas the town can focus on and implement to drop our rating from a 6 to a 4,” Otis said. Charleston County is the only community in the state that has a Class 4 rating. It gets a 30 percent premium discount.

The town will earn almost enough points from raising the building height to earn another 5 percent discount. Beyond that, the town will have to weigh the costs and benefits of further measures, Otis said.

“I would think that’s a bargain,” Oakley said of the extra 3 feet. “Whatever it takes to elevate would more than pay for itself in the premium savings.”

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