Fenwick committee split on freeboard

The Fenwick Island Charter & Ordinance Committee isn’t entirely comfortable with a proposed freeboard ordinance. In fact, the group was split on March 8 on whether they agreed with the law as written.

The town council has already approved the first reading of the ordinance that would permit buildings to be 18 to 24 inches taller if they provide 18 to 24 inches of freeboard underneath, building from a higher point to reduce flood impacts.

Freeboard is the additional amount of height above the Base Flood Elevation that a building’s lowest floor is elevated or flood-proofed. (For instance, people might be required to start their homes 7 feet in the air, but they could include 2 feet of freeboard and start at 9 feet instead. The ordinance would let them exceed the Town’s 30-foot height limit, so they wouldn’t lose 2 feet of living space as a result of adding freeboard underneath.)

Committee members Bill Weistling, Diane Tingle and Winnie Lewis support the legislation, while Buzz Henifin, Doug Lopez and Mike Quinn voted against supporting it as written.

Although Ben Waide and Roy Williams were absent from the meeting, the remaining C&O members hypothesized that the vote might have remained split, even with full attendance.

Because the 30-foot height limit has been on the books since the 1970s, “This is a point of passion,” said Lopez, adding that he wants the Town to move forward very deliberately so residents feel well-informed and well-represented.

He warned that public perception may be negative, because the ordinance change process is occurring in winter, when part-time residents are usually away. Plus, people only have a few weeks to form an opinion before the anticipated April 1 public hearing.

“Are we gonna drive a nail in with a sledge hammer or a regular hammer?” Lopez asked, regarding the best way to approach the ordinance change. “What problem are we facing that we need to fix?”

Lopez loosely estimated that the new rule would only benefit about 15 percent of the town, based on his reading of the FEMA floodplain maps.

Other houses must also adhere to stricter building standards, based on Fenwick Island’s own imposed Limit of Moderate Wave Action (LMWA) line, said Building Official Patricia Schuchman. Fenwick already requires those houses to be built as if they were in a more hazardous flooding zone.

Although the flood insurance benefits have been cited as a perk to building houses with more freeboard, some people said that’s not universal. Their insurance companies wouldn’t give a discount for 2 feet of freeboard in the AO flood zone.

Town Manager Merritt Burke IV reminded C&O members that flood zone designations aren’t permanent, and they’re very unlikely to ever decrease in severity again.

“The maps we’re discussing aren’t set in stone. Don’t ever get used to a certain zone,” Burke said.

“We’re gonna have a very small percentage who benefit,” Lopez said. “Let’s just call it what it is: raising the height.”

“We’re not raising it regardless. They still have to have the 18 to 24 inches” of freeboard underneath, Tingle had said earlier.

Quinn brought up the eligibility of houses to gain freeboard/height. A recent Town survey only referred to freeboard for new construction. The draft ordinance does not have that limit.

“I thought this was for new buildings only when we discussed it [previously],” Quinn said.

That’s true, Weistling said. “We can discuss that and change it at council.”

(When he was asked the same question at the March 4 council meeting, Weistling said the topic would be addressed at the March 8 C&O meeting.)

But he explained his reasoning for the change: If a family wanted to elevate their little cottage, he thinks they should be eligible for the same benefit as new construction.

“They should be offered the same opportunity as everyone else. … You should be able to raise an old house to the same height as new construction,” said Weistling, adding that he would be happiest if residents were to just flat-out raise their lots.

Burke said the ultimate goal is to reduce flood insurance claims (although that’s ultimately up to the individual property owner).

“I have five houses waiting to see what the decision will be,” Schuchman said.

The C&O committee cannot schedule town council votes, so Quinn and Lopez recommended a rescheduling of a public hearing and the council’s final vote until July, so summertime residents can attend and council actions will appear transparent. But the motion failed, with Weistling, Tingle and Lewis opposed, and with Henifin abstaining.

The committee’s division on the issue will still be included in Weistling’s report to the council, he said.

Williams sent a letter opposing the ordinance change: “It does not solve any problems but just allows people to build a bigger house.”

Several members of the public reiterated their opinions that the decision seems “rushed and clandestine” and that they felt this is a blanket response to a limited problem.

Weistling responded to complaints about the survey: It wasn’t binding to the whole council, but he had chosen to follow its results for himself, even if one side had won by just two votes (as the 2015 election was).

Although freeboard and house height has been discussed off and on since late 2014, the town council and C&O Committee have changed in their makeup since the last public discussion. That’s why some people on both boards were surprised to see the freeboard ordinance added to the March town council agenda.

Burke said he can’t tell people what might be on the agenda before it’s officially published seven days before meetings. Any council member can place a topic on the agenda, but Burke said he sometimes only gets that information one or two days beforehand. He said he doesn’t want to risk telling people that a topic will be discussed before it’s officially added to the agenda. But he notifies the council as soon as the agenda is published online, he said.

Freeboard and height limits will be added to the C&O agenda for April 5.

In other Charter & Ordinance news:

• After some residents complained of hearing gunshots early in the morning, a new firearms law is in the works. Although those people had permission from the property owner, committee members said they want to address issues of peace and safety. They’re considering a hunting regulation, rather than a weapons discharge regulation (which could involve exceptions for archery, self-defense, air guns and more).

• Attendance at committee meetings is sometimes incomplete, Weistling said in response to a citizen question. He said he used to get flak for only inviting full-time residents to participate in C&O committee work, so he had added some part-timers, knowing they wouldn’t always attend.

• Drones have been a hot topic lately, with drone regulation under consideration in Bethany Beach and elsewhere, but Weistling said he thought it best to consider possible legislation after the FAA makes final decisions on regulating the miniature aircraft.

The Charter & Ordinance Committee will meet again on Tuesday, April 5, at 9:30 a.m. at town hall.