County discusses FEMA’s freeboard requirement


The Sussex County Council this week received an update on the progress of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) flood ordinance.

The County participates in the National Flood Insurance Program, which requires the County to adhere to requirements of the federal government and, more specifically, FEMA.

“At this time, FEMA has required all municipalities throughout country that participate in NFIP to update their flood maps, as well as the regulations that govern construction within a flood zone,” said County Administrator Todd Lawson.

The County will need to update its own ordinance by mid-March 2015, in order to avoid jeopardizing the county’s flood insurance coverage.

Lawson said County officials have worked with staff from FEMA and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC) on the updates.

In moving forward, Lawson said, the County could take its current ordinance and try to “piecemeal” it with updates, so that it receives approval, or utilize the draft FEMA released for all municipalities to use called the “basic model ordinance.”

“This only affects properties within a specific flood zone,” emphasized Lawson. “If the County chooses not to do anything and update its ordinance, we will be in violation of the regulations, and therefore our residents will not qualify for the National Flood Insurance Program. Basically, we have to do this.”

Lawson said that an ordinance introduction is anticipated late this year, with public hearings set to be held in the early part of 2015. He said the County will have the discretion to adopt what is referred to as “freeboard.”

“This idea of freeboard is additional height of construction beyond the minimum height that the County already has. … For example, if you have a minimum height of 10 feet above mean sea level, if we were to adopt additional freeboard above that, it means it’s10 feet plus whatever we adopt.”

FEMA recommends a freeboard requirement of 12 to 18 inches in its Model Ordinance.

“One of the reasons this is important is we only govern in the county jurisdiction. All municipalities throughout the county that have a flood ordinance as well are considering the exact same thing we will consider.”

Lawson said there is some discussion among the jurisdictions to try to coordinate freeboard requirements to create a universal standard. He added that Slaughter Beach and Bethany Beach are waiting for the County to consider what their freeboard requirement will be before they decide on their own. Rehoboth Beach has already adopted a 1-foot freeboard requirement.

Vince Robertson, assistant county attorney, stated that the County is trying to find out what other municipalities are doing.

“So if there is some issue where flood insurance comes into play, there’s some consistency, whether it’s 12 inches, 18 inches or zero above base flood elevation.”

“What does this really do after we adopt it?” asked Councilman Sam Wilson.

“In the big picture, it maintains flood insurance for everybody in Sussex County,” explained Robertson. “If we don’t adopt it, everybody that’s required to have flood insurance that’s in a flood zone would lose their eligibility for federal flood insurance.”

Robertson said the ordinance would be “clarifying what’s in existence.”

Councilman George Cole said that, if property owners weren’t able to qualify for the NFIP, they could go to the private sector for flood insurance.

“Which is very expensive — awfully expensive,” he said. “You have to have the federal flood insurance, because it’s more affordable.”

Wilson said he was concerned about the financial burden on the taxpayers who didn’t purchase property within the flood zone.

“It’s really not going to do any harm, and they still get the federal flood insurance,” said Cole. “We’re not prohibiting anybody from building. We’re just following these guidelines so they can get flood insurance.”

Cole added that he didn’t know how much of taxpayers’ monies go to pay for the insurance.

Councilman Vance Phillips said he had heard that one year of premiums have covered all claims over the last 15 years.

“I’ll get that reference before the public hearing,” he said. “If that’s the case, then it may not be subsidized by the taxpayers but fully covered by premiums.”

Robertson said that historically the County’s approach has been to follow the minimum requirement from FEMA.

Cole said he felt the County should try to take the lead when it comes to the freeboard requirement, so that other municipalities, if they wish, may follow suit.

“It seems to me the program is there. The question would be freeboarding. Since Rehoboth has gone to 12 inches, and uniformity would be nice to have in Sussex County for builders and contractors who have to build, so they don’t get different regulations everywhere they go... See if we can come to a conclusion and try to take the lead on freeboarding.

“Time is critical. We have a March deadline for everybody — not just for the County but the towns… Let’s get it off the table first.”

Phillips suggested the freeboard be left at zero feet in the draft ordinance, until the council has more discussion.

“I think it’s pretty important,” said Cole, stating that he wanted the council to have further discussion with staff about the definition of freeboard and how County requirements may affect the cost to property owners. “All I’m asking — we ought to have an opportunity to have a conversation… This is the first we’ve heard of it. … I think shooting from the hip is not an appropriate way to address this important issue.”

Phillips said the additional freeboard is not a requirement but a recommendation, and said he believed hearing from staff would be beneficial to the council.

Council President Michael Vincent also asked Robertson to look into whether or not a property owner could add freeboard, if it was not required by the County to do so, and still get a federal discount on insurance.

“This should be interesting,” he added.

In other county news:

• Sussex County Council will be sponsoring its annual election contest, giving students in high school the chance to win a scholarship for college. Participating students are being asked to predict winners in November’s General Election for federal, state and county offices. The student with the most correct predictions will win a $200 scholarship, while five runners-up will each win $100 scholarships.

• On Tuesday, Sept. 30, the County will hold a workshop on Code of Ethics at 1 p.m., after the regularly scheduled council meeting.

• County taxes are due on Sept. 30 and may be paid online, at www.sussexcountyde.gov.