The Federal Emergency Management Agency has some explaining to do.
FEMA has scheduled a public meeting at South Bethany Town Hall to discuss the new Preliminary FIRM (flood insurance rate map) on Friday, June 12, from 6 to 8 p.m. (This workshop will replace the regular Town Council meeting.) The maps should be released in late May.
“This meeting will be of an outreach nature and include DNREC [Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control] and the Army Corps of Engineers. All attending will have the opportunity to ask questions and obtain information on the BFE of their property and flood insurance,” wrote Mayor Pat Voveris in the town’s spring newsletter, the Zephyr. “Rates will not be part of the available information, but planning for optimal protection and premiums will be.”
The public session will have stations with various information on offer, although Voveris insisted on a public question-and-answer session.
Just weeks before the stricter flood maps were to be enacted in South Bethany, FEMA bowed to public outcry. It rescinded the “final determination” that had previously raised the base flood elevation (BFE) for oceanfront homes, including areas that had previously seen a proposed decrease.
BFE is the elevation to which floodwater arise expected to rise during a 100-year flood. Houses have to be built no lower than that elevation or pay high flood-insurance premiums. There were several changes, but Ocean Drive’s increase was the distinguishing characteristic on these maps.
FEMA is currently, if briefly, operating under the previous 2005 maps, until re-releasing a new proposed preliminary FIRM in late May.
FEMA will then publish two public notices about the maps in the local newspaper. The 90-day appeal period begins then. That’s when property owners or the Town may send official comments or complaints.
Property owners should first submit any appeals to the Town of South Bethany. The Town forwards the appeal to FEMA but can also weigh in if it feels the appeal has merit.
After FEMA resolves any appeals (which could take months), it will issue a new Notice of Final Determination (as it did in September of 2014). Six months later, the new maps could be enacted (perhaps around summer of 2016, if everything proceeds smoothly).
Council hires help
At an April 23 workshop, the council tried to reconcile the terms of a May 21 pre-meeting between the Town, State, FEMA, U.S. Rep. John Carney’s office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
FEMA had requested a non-public meeting, just to discuss the layout of the June 12 meeting. But South Bethany cannot have a quorum of council members at a meeting without being bound to Freedom of Information Act rules.
“I don’t think they’re hiding anything. They’re just trying to pre-plan,” Town Manager Melvin Cusick said.
Voveris and Councilmen George Junkin and Tim Saxton were picked to attend. They were also authorized to choose an engineering consultant for the May 21 meeting, since the proposals were not completed before that evening’s workshop.
The town council unanimously voted to hire a consultant, for $10,000 at the maximum, to attend the meeting, learn South Bethany’s issues and give a recommendation on filing an appeal.
The council can always authorize future action later.
“I think it’s a prudent thing to do. I think it’s a show of good faith to our owners,” said Voveris, who added that she’ll make an informed decision, but acknowledges she’s no expert in the topic.
“I don’t think we need to do it to look good,” Junkin clarified.
Councilman Jim Gross said he was uncomfortable with hiring an engineer, which he said could imply the council plans to appeal, although it’s made no decision to do so.
“We’re not trying to placate the oceanfront people. We’re trying to decide the right thing to do,” Gross said.
“I’m not asking him whether we should make an appeal,” Junkin said. “I’m asking if an appeal would be likely to be successful.”
The council decided it was probably unnecessary to bring a consultant to the June meeting, although homeowners may want to bring their own, as well, Junkin noted.
Also at the May 8 town council meeting:
• The six candidates for town council election were invited to introduce themselves and field questions from the audience.
Councilwoman Sue Callaway thanked the candidates for running, saying she could envision each of them helping the town in different ways.
“It is a commitment. It does change your life. I think we have six really terrific candidates,” Callaway said.
“You all have something to bring to the party, and we look forward to working with each and every one of you,” Voveris said.
• Voveris thanked outgoing council members Tony Caputo, Jim Gross and Al Rae (Rae was absent from the meeting) for “their time, interest, talent and dedication in their service to the Town of South Bethany.”
A resident asked if the outgoing council members had any words for the future council, which will be elected on May 23.
“You’re required to go to two meetings a month. It’s a substantial commitment,” especially when you do the research beforehand, Caputo said.
He complimented the active public.
“We have people that participate in meetings, and this is a great place to live,” he concluded.
“I appreciate the opportunity to have served in this capacity, and I wish the new council well,” Gross said, “and I hope that you find it interesting and satisfying, as I have. And I thank you.”
Representing the Charter & Code Committee, Gross offered perspective on the legal process.
“Some have suggested the process is slow, ponderous, because it does take a while,” said Gross, describing the committee, council, public and attorney review process. “I submit that it’s an excellent process. But it’s not easy dealing with differing viewpoints from the public and the [council].”
• At a recent are ambulance service meeting, Voveris said a “disturbing topic” raised was the decline of volunteerism. It’s rigorous work for those who are aging, she said, and youth volunteers have not been jumping in.
• When a resident asked if South Bethany has any wetlands-related projects, Junkin said the Town has nothing major in progress. The current project is grant-funded, to create additional rain gardens and bio-retention areas for cleaner water and runoff.
Meanwhile, Junkin said, wetlands isn’t an area of expertise for anyone on the council, and he is already spearheading several grants.
Callaway suggested that the Planning Commission start brainstorming.
There are wetlands within Town limits, but under state and federal control, Cusick noted.
• The South Bethany Police Department had extra patrols on the road for the “Click It or Ticket” seatbelt campaign. Since the Delaware program began, Chief Troy Crowson said, seatbelt use has increased statewide, to 92 percent of drivers.
• Crowson also welcomes donations if people want to contribute to the bicycle safety fund.
• Resident Ron Wuslich asked the status of putting utility lines in ground — noting that he’s lived in nine places, and this is the only town that has lines aboveground. Cusick said about 40 percent of the wires are underground.
• The Town’s Investment Policy Statement was approved.
“This is what we’ve always done. This just puts it in writing,” Cusick said.
• The council tabled discussion while they clean up and finalize the draft Guidelines for Use of Town Hall Facilities.
• The second reading was completed for Ordinance 179-15, which requires a quarter-inch of minimum spacing between enclosure boards in the definition of “floor-to-area ratio.” It also clarifies the definition for “substantial damage” and “substantial improvement,” based on FEMA’s “Substantial Improvement/Substantial Damage Desk Reference” manual.
• Kathy Jankowski reported on the recent Realtor luncheon, hosted to highlight the Town for Realtors selling and renting locally.
Besides this year’s yoga, movies and more on the beach, Jankowski encouraged people to contact her with “other ideas on things you would like to see happen in the town.”
The May 28 town council workshop was canceled. The next regular meeting will be replaced by the FEMA session at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 12.