Fenwick Island approves height increase with freeboard

The Fenwick Island Town Council has approved a change in the Town’s old 30-foot building height limit. Depending on who tells the story, the change was rushed through in five weeks, or spread over 15 months.

Either way, buildings can now be up to 2 feet higher than before.

“As long as you meet the 18 to 24 inches of freeboard above FEMA requirements [for base flood elevation], that will enable you to have a roof height increase of 18 to 24 inches,” said Building Official Pat Schuchman.

The change does not affect occupancy.

The bill’s first reading was in February, without consensus from the Charter & Ordinance Committee, and without any direct warning, apart from appearing on the agenda one week beforehand. The second reading and final ordinance passed on April 1, the date of the postponed March meeting.

However, C&O Chair Bill Weistling Jr. said, the council had discussed freeboard and height in January of 2015 but did not pass it with the FEMA floodplain mandates. C&O discussed it in January and April of that year, but council postponed discussion until the public hearing during Memorial Day weekend of 2015. Then the council decided to wait until after a public survey, and after elections.

“Based on the recommendations of the survey and the elections, council decided to go ahead and proceed with the ordinance,” Weistling said.

In fact, he’s gotten questions as to why the council delayed this long, as some people have waited to build in Fenwick until the ordinance is officially decided.

“It was strongly suggested by FEMA that we consider this,” and Fenwick was the last to do so, said Councilman Gardner Bunting. “We should have acted on this, I think, much sooner.”

But if the goal is flood protection, the new ordinance does not meet the intent, argued resident Richard Benn, calling it “a gratuitous attempt to increase buildable area.” He said the change affects 100 percent of the community, although only maybe 15 percent need it, he said.

According to the Comprehensive Plan, the community favors 30-foot, single-family homes, Benn said.

“We’ve had a lot of flooding since that plan was put together,” countered former Fenwick Island Town Councilman R. Chris Clark [now the Coastal Point’s photographer], who said a plan is a guideline, not a mandate.

But there are “holes” in this legislation, said Kevin Carouge, and some people agreed. He called the change a “springboard” for future height increases, passed without mandate from FEMA or insurance companies, and without community consensus.

Some people instead suggested an ordinance to raise lots or bulkheads, instead of houses.

“You’re changing the complexion of the whole town that we have fought for more than 40 years to maintain the way it is,” said resident Lynn Andrews.

Resident Vicki Carmean said she, and others, had already anticipated flooding and built smart, so they believed newcomers can do the same.

“I want to ask the council to slow down just a little” and reconsider the one-size-fits-all plan, Carmean said. Yes, this could alleviate some flooding problems, she said, but it may create unanticipated issues.

“We’re against an ordinance that just puts 2 feet everywhere,” Benn concluded.

Several residents supported the change, saying they would like the room for extra freeboard on their homes.

The vote was 5-2, with Council Members Julie Lee and Roy Williams opposed.

“Every member of the council is in favor of freeboard,” Lee clarified.

But “the proposed ordinance change, as it is written now, does not address sea-level rise. It does not encourage freeboard, nor does it provide relief for those that need it most on the bay side,” Lee said.

The number of properties affected contrasts with the smaller number of houses affected by the FEMA flood map changes, she noted.

She also called out Mayor Gene Langan, who has chastised Lee for writing him an open letter to the editor. That was prompted by his not responding to her emails, Lee said.

“This ordinance, to me, this has been the rock this has been the mainstay to me in Fenwick Island,” said Williams. “The way this is done — almost every house built in probably the past 10 years is up on pilings. They’ve already incorporated freeboard. … What we’re doing here is just allowing everybody to build a bigger house.”

Lee and Williams had their say, but said they didn’t fight harder, or try to incorporate the survey’s original language for new construction only.

“Well, you saw what happened when we tried to get that changed. It’s not gonna happen. It’s a done deal,” Williams said afterward.

Asked if the bill isn’t an incentive to build a safer house, Lee said, “I’ve already got a house, and I’m on 8 feet of pilings. I don’t have to change a thing. I can come right in tomorrow and raise my roof 2 feet.”

She said she’s certain many houses have more than enough freeboard, too, especially in areas where base flood level was recently lowered.

“This vote came up so quickly,” Lee said. “It just happened, so I think everyone had just resigned themselves that this was going to be a 5-2 vote, and there’s going to be another election this summer.”

Council members may only get what they want with votes of support. Three seats will be up for election in 2016. The slate of candidates favoring such a change was successful in the 2015 council election, with Lee the only candidate in opposition who was elected.

Lee suggested creating a community outreach committee “because, I felt, [based on] some of the comments that we got from the public hearing, there is common ground from the neighbors who disagree on a lot of things. I think if we can find some common ground within the community — maybe I’m idealistic — we can make some progress and move forward.”