Fenwick houses may get higher soon as a freeboard reward

Freeboard has returned as an increasingly divisive topic at Fenwick Island Town Council meetings.

On Feb. 26, a number of residents opposed an ordinance that would allow Fenwick houses to surpass the 30-foot building height by 18 to 24 inches, based on adding that much more freeboard to the structure.

The town council still passed the first reading of Town Code Chapter 160-4 and 160-5. Councilman Roy Williams was absent, and Councilwoman Julie Lee was the lone vote of opposition in the 5-1 vote.

Freeboard is not a physical board, but a term describing a how high a house is built above the flood line.

The ordinance is designed to function as a reward to encourage people to build safer homes. Most coastal homes already include some freeboard to meet FEMA floodplain requirements. But houses built with even more freeboard are considered to be safer, and often pay lower flood insurance premiums.

Today, all homes in Fenwick Island must meet a 30-foot height limit. Homeowners who want extra protection must squeeze in any extra freeboard under that height limit, which can mean sacrificing the overall size of the living areas of their house.

With additional freeboard, the additional height is voluntary. People could still build to 30 feet if they choose, or they could go a little higher if they’re building starting from a higher point.

In an open letter to Mayor Gene Langan, published in the Feb. 26 Coastal Point, Lee shared her displeasure at finding the topic on the council’s agenda for Feb. 26, without recent discussion by any of the town committees.

“There has been no discussion of freeboard or the height limit in the Charter & Ordinance Committee since last spring,” she wrote. “Several members of the current C&O Committee knew nothing about the proposed first reading. The Planning Commission has not discussed raising the height as they work on the new Comprehensive Plan.

But the ordinance wasn’t rushed, Councilman Bill Weisling asserted. “It was discussed over the past year. It was discussed through an election cycle. … And my personal feeling is that the majority of the people have spoken.”

The Charter & Ordinance Committee did discuss it during floodplain ordinance changes, due in early 2015. The council was divided initially on whether to make additional freeboard voluntary or mandatory. The issue was tabled in the spring of 2015, to get public opinion. Town council elections touched on the topic in summer, and the town survey on freeboard was planned in autumn. Responses were due in December.

The question on the survey asked whether people supported allowing additional height in new construction, if freeboard was involved. In all, the responses included 190 yes votes; 164 no votes; eight neutral votes; and one survey that was tossed out because it said both yes and no.

Some council members put full stock in the non-binding survey from late 2015.

“To me, the importance was the survey that was sent out. I said I would follow results of that survey,” said Weistling, who already supported additional freeboard in a town that lies completely in the floodplain. He noted that he has attended state planning meetings where the message was “elevate, elevate, elevate.”

But the survey itself caused consternation. It was sent out at one per property, not one per person, so each household could only produce one opinion. Some people didn’t even receive the survey, including Lee, who said she had to request another copy. For all that, 190 favorable votes is not a majority, said Lisa Benn, who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat in the 2015 election.

The 2007 Comprehensive Plan encourages houses to remain at a height less than 30 feet. But as Fenwick prepares the 10-year update for the plan, the State wants towns to address sea-level rise, Langan said. He said a myth exists that the council majority is pro-development.

However, “This is about saving homes and saving homeowners money,” he said.

Langan said he received emails from three opponents and one supporter of the ordinance.

Opponents at least wanted stronger wording of the ordinance, to prevent unintended consequences. But they mostly wanted the height limit left alone.

Williams, while absent from the Feb. 26 meeting, sent a letter of opposition.

“I am extremely disappointed to have this surface during my only absence of the year,” Williams wrote. “We already have voluntary freeboard. My observation is that most homeowners built their homes” within FEMA standards, but manage to stay under the 30-foot requirement.

“Freeboard makes sense. Everyone should do it,” Lee said, but she opposes a “one-size-fits-all” approach that would blanket the whole town.

“Two feet of freeboard will not eliminate the flooding problem on the bay side and will give the ocean side properties 2 additional feet which they do not need,” Lee’s letter stated.

But that’s not enough, said Langan and Councilman Gardner Bunting. A heavy storm can put oceanside homes underwater, too.

“You weren’t here in 1985 when [Hurricane] Gloria hit. We were,” Langan later told the crowd, recalling the massive oceanside flooding. “We lost 40 percent of our dune in this last storm,” he added of the January 2016 nor’easter called Jonas. “It’s very possible another storm could breach the dunes.”

But people won’t use the ordinance for home protection, argued Benn. They’ll just want it for the height increase, she said.

“One particular family said, ‘I want this two feet so I can build a deck on top of my house,’” Benn said “People will do it just because they can, not because of the flood issues. That’s my concern.”

But those people will also have taken the step of building a house with an extra two feet of freeboard, per the draft ordinance.

Meanwhile, the survey only referred to freeboard for new construction. The draft ordinance does not. The Charter & Ordinance Committee will address that discrepancy on March 8.

Mary Ellen Langan said she favored freeboard in a today’s modern world.

“It’s a different world today. We have sea-level rise. We have [serious storms]. It only makes sense to do it. What’s two feet?” Langan said. “This is done to protect the whole house.”

If people want extra protection, they should accomplish it within 30 feet, like everyone who already built in Fenwick, some argued.

Lynn Andrews said her house was built to 29 feet, 10.5 inches, with low ceilings to make room for extra freeboard.

“We like our little town the way it is.” Andrews said.

Mike Houser said he favored freeboard. But he said he’s concerned with the methodology of measuring house heights from the center of the street, instead preferring what he said would be a more equitable method, as individual lot heights can vary at either end of the same road. (The 2007 Comp Plan suggested that town officials amend this method of determining height.)

The public can continue speaking in favor or against the proposed ordinance, as the adoption of the ordinance requires a vote to approve it upon a second reading. A public hearing will likely be scheduled before the April 1 council meeting, and the council’s second reading (and final vote) can be expected that day.

In other Fenwick Island news:

• After Winter Storm Jonas, State of Delaware bulldozers have been pushing beach sand back onto the dunes. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t plan to stray from existing beach replenishment schedule, despite the storm damage. Fenwick Island’s next renourishment is slated for fall of 2017, though U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) this week was set to request emergency funding to restore portions of the state’s coastline to pre-storm conditions.

Langan said the Town is working with local and state legislators to be included in the already-scheduled 2016 Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach projects. Fenwick is holding a “double-edged sword,” Langan said. “We didn’t get that much damage like the other downs did. So I think we’re a very low priority.”

Fenwick’s future budget meetings will include discussion of beefing up the Town’s beach replenishment fund.

• Issues surrounding parking tags are up for debate in this April’s budget meetings. Each of Fenwick’s 816 properties gets one free hanging blue tag, but owners can purchase two more. There is concern about overcrowding of the 250 beachfront parking spots, the cost of tags, the availability of tags and the share-ability of tags used by people who don’t live in Fenwick.

From the year 2009 to 2015, town revenue from extra tags sold has jumped from about $100 to $5,500.

The public can contact Town Hall with opinions and ideas on town parking issues.

• The new town website should be completed by Memorial Day.

• The 2016 voter registration list will be presented to council at Memorial Day weekend meeting. This year’s election would be Saturday, Aug. 6.

• Fenwick police officers have now won three of the last four Joshua M. Freeman Overall Valor Awards. The council commended Lt. John Devlin, who won the 2016 Overall Valor Award, from among a group of local police, firefighters and EMTs.

• The FIPD has placed a new vehicle in service and sold the old surplus vehicle, actually making money between a County grant and the sale income.

• Nearly $8,000 was donated by local businesses and an individual to pay for about 13 new street lights, which were purchased in a special deal to buy two and get one free.

• With little feedback at the public hearing, the council unanimously approved new fencing guidelines, which state “Such a fence … shall have openings approximately 20 percent to 30 percent of the total surface area to provide for the flow-through of air. A detailed design drawing of the structure shall be submitted with the application for a building permit.”

Due to the Easter holiday, the council’s next meeting has been postponed to Friday, April 1, at 3:30 p.m.