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Pawleys Island: Raising new buildings is only first step for town

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

When Pawleys Island Town Council held a public hearing this month on a proposal that will require new and remodeled homes to be elevated an extra 3 feet there was only one comment against it. And that was offered second hand.

Council Member Mike Adams got a call from a property owner concerned that the higher buildings would change the look of the island. He passed along the objection during the council’s discussion, but added, “I don’t necessarily subscribe to that.”

The measure passed unanimously and will gain the town points under a federal flood insurance program that reduces premiums for policyholders in participating communities.

“The most difficult part is getting the ordinance changed, getting people to back you and get support,” said Ryan Fabbri, the town’s assistant administrator and coordinator of its CRS program.

The Community Rating System is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a way to reduce payouts under the National Flood Insurance Program. The town joined the program in 2005 and has a Class 6 rating, which provides a 20 percent discount on federal flood insurance premiums. The saving is almost $280,000 a year for the island’s property owners.

The town has relied on a series of part-time employees to obtain and manage its CRS program. Fabbri is the first full-timer and his hiring last October doubled the town’s administration. He joined Town Clerk Diane Allen in the three-room Town Hall that also houses the police department. The mayor has always served as the town’s unpaid administrator. Otis, who was re-elected to a ninth term without opposition (and hence without the need for an actual election under state law) last year, said he wanted to turn over more day-to-day duties and create some “institutional memory” for the town administration.

“Just to have CRS, it’s almost a full-time job,” Fabbri said.

He estimates it takes about a third of his time on average. That’s in addition to keeping track of public works projects, the budget, accommodations tax collections and tourism marketing, maintaining the town’s website, helping draft ordinances and other tasks.

Although the town just completed a mandatory five-year review under the CRS program last year, Otis made a push to get a better rating priority in response to proposed reforms in the federal flood insurance program that will eventually raise costs for coastal property owners.

“They’re going up 25 percent a year until they get to market rate, and nobody’s figured out what the market rate is,” Otis said.

His goal is to get the town to a Class 4 rating and a 30 percent premium discount. That will require calling FEMA in for another review next year. The rise in building elevation is just one measure that will help the town reach that goal, Otis said.

The town already required structures to be 1 foot above the minimum flood elevation set by FEMA. Going to 3 feet, the maximum that will earn points, wasn’t a big step, but it met close scrutiny from the town Planning Commission earlier this summer. Members were concerned about added cost, and about the visual impact as buildings get taller. Some Town Council members raised those issues before adopting the new elevation.

Fabbri put together figures from FEMA and from other communities in the CRS to show town officials that the savings for property owners would be $600 a year compared to premiums for houses built to the current standard. They would be over $1,400 for owners of older homes that don’t meet the current standard. The additional costs for new construction would be minimal. “It’s insignificant compared to what you’ll save on your insurance,” Jimmy McCants, who chairs the Planning Commission, said.

But even owners of houses that don’t meet the standard will get a benefit from the premium discount if the town improves its rating.

“We’ve got to keep doing this kind of thing,” Otis said.

The next step for the town will come after Fabbri returns from a week-long FEMA course in Maryland next month. Since starting work with the town he’s already become a certified floodplain manager. That was a prerequisite for a CRS course.

“I had no prior knowledge of flood insurance,” Fabbri said. “You can call me weird or whatever, but I really get into it.”

Fabbri was already on the learning curve. He and his wife Angela moved to the area from Chicago so she could take a job at Brandon Advertising in Myrtle Beach. (She recently became communications director for the Coastal Carolina Association of Realtors.) The change gave Fabbri the opportunity to finish the bachelor’s degree he started in political science and sociology. He had put it on hold to take a job as a project manager with a plumbing contractor in Chicago. “You’re making good money and you say, ‘this is good for now.’ Eventually you’ll do what you want to do,” Fabbri said. “Then 10 years go by.”

He finished his undergraduate degree at Coastal Carolina University and is now working on a master’s degree in public administration through Clemson University. He takes online classes twice a week at his computer in Town Hall while Angela watches their three daughters at home.

Otis showed Fabbri the 700-plus-page CRS manual during the job interview. “I like taking something like that that’s complex and running with it,” Fabbri said.

And that was only the old manual. There’s a new one, in digital form, with a new set of rules that the town will have to meet when it seeks an improved rating. In the meantime, it will have to prove to FEMA that it is abiding by the old rules.

The CRS program has four broad categories: public information, mapping and regulation, flood damage reduction, and flood preparedness. Communities can adopt measures within each one to gain points. Fabbri’s job requires him to document Pawleys Island’s current efforts while planning new measures.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” he said.

Georgetown County is also part of the CRS program, with a 10 percent discount, and is preparing for its first five-year review. It is harder for the county to get a higher rating because it has to deal with property that is subject to river flooding, Fabbri said. Unlike the beachfront, where the elevation of structures is shown on FEMA maps, elevations for structures along river property have to be calculated individually. “There are a lot more things that go into it,” he said.

The highest rating, Class 1, is held by a town in California that sits below a reservoir. It gets a 45 percent premium discount. “To achieve a 1, you have to do a lot of things that for us wouldn’t be possible,” Fabbri said, such as dam safety measures.

The CRS program isn’t just about saving money, although that’s a major focus, he said. “What we really need to look at is sustainability” in the face of rising sea level, Fabbri said. “If we do it right, great-grandchildren will inherit houses that are still here.”

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