Flood code revisions to fix FEMA issues move forward

Flood code revisions to fix FEMA issues move forward

(Feb. 27, 2015) Ocean City government is ready to codify and overhaul its building policy that will ensure resort building elevations are maintained, but won’t do anything to force property owners to buy flood insurance in the face of much less restrictive federal standards.

“The message we still want to get out is that, if you live on a barrier island, it behooves you to get flood insurance, even if the federal government no longer says you have to,” City Engineer Terry McGean said.

New Flood Insurance Rate Maps, as set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the National Flood Insurance Program, are set to go into effect on July 16.

The current maps, in effect since the 1980s, have almost all of Ocean City located in zones within a 100-year floodplain. This means that, in any given year, there is a one percent chance of a storm that will reach or exceed the mapped base flood elevation.

However, the new maps take the city’s beach replenishment and dune-building projects into account for the first time. As such, much of the resort – including nearly all oceanfront properties – have been downgraded to zone designations that are not considered part of the 100-year floodplain, and thus are not rated with a base flood elevation.

This creates a problem for the city’s building code, which almost universally specifies that buildings must raise the height of their first floors a number of feet above base flood elevation, a standard known as “freeboard.”

“We’ve used the base flood elevation on those maps for years to calculate the first-floor height you must build at,” McGean said.

For most areas on the oceanside of the resort, for instance, the city’s code calls for buildings to be elevated at least three feet above base flood elevation. But with these areas now out of the 100-year floodplain, base elevation ceases to exist, thus making the city’s code useless.

“If no action is taken, there would be no minimum first-floor height for any building outside the 100-year floodplain,” McGean said.

The revisions, which were approved this week for an upcoming ordinance, will re-write the code to maintain similar first-floor heights despite the lack of a FEMA elevation standards.

Direct oceanfront properties that are outside of the floodplain would be required to be 16.5 feet above the newest sea level standard. All other buildings east of Coastal Highway would require three feet of elevation above the “nearest adjacent grade,” or three feet above base flood elevation if they are in one of the few remaining areas where one will still exist after July.

This would also be required of bayside buildings, which were previously only held to two feet above flood elevation.

“This would keep first-floor heights pretty much where we’ve had them, except for the bayside properties that are still in flood zones, where they’ll be required an extra foot,” McGean said. “After Sandy, we have proof that these areas flooded most … I think it’s appropriate to go from two to three feet of freeboard.”

Properties in the downtown area, which receive a special dispensation from FEMA, could continue to be built at-grade.

“When the lots are very small with very little setback, it become very difficult to put significant elevation on a structure and still have it be accessible,” McGean noted.

The city’s desire to hold itself to a higher standard, even though FEMA is backing off, is two-fold.

“We’re trying to maintain an elevated structure, even if you’re not in a flood zone, for two reasons,” McGean said. “One, if the maps change, they can change again … two, we want to be a sustainable community. We want to make sure Ocean City is here after another Sandy.”

Councilmember Dennis Dare, himself the city’s former engineer and city manager, noted that Ocean City had pre-empted FEMA before, when the town instituted building standards in the 1970s that were above federal requirements.

In the 1980s, when the city was trying to get funding for the first round of dune construction and beach replenishment, a tour of oceanfront properties revealed that wave impacts had eroded the ground up to the level of the pilings that the city had mandated.

“If those condos had been built to FEMA’s minimum code, and not Ocean City’s own code, they would’ve literally been in the ocean by then,” Dare said.

The other effect of FEMA’s flood map changes, however, is more difficult for the city to tackle. If not in a 100-year floodplain, properties are no longer bound by federal mortgage regulations to obtain flood insurance.

The message from the city has been that less-intense flood zones would come with lower rates, thus making insurance cheaper even if property owners are not forced to buy it. But insurance agents have said this is not proving true.

“There’s a lot of different factors in rating a building as to what the final premium would be,” said Insurance Management Group President Reese Cropper. “The assumption is, because it is a lower risk zone, that you’re going to be saving … but I can tell you in many cases that that’s not so. The premiums are going up for many buildings.”

The fear is if a major storm were to hit and uninsured properties were damaged, they would be left in a state of dereliction for long periods of time, slowing the overall recovery period. This problem was seen in certain areas of New Jersey after Sandy in 2013.

“I think you’re going to have a lot of people who are going to say, ‘I’m not going to pay this premium,’” Cropper said. “It’s a financial bet. Just this last week, we saw lots of pipes freeze because people didn’t want to pay to heat their properties.”

In moving the measure forward, the council asked the city staff to look into some kind of public outreach campaign to let them know that the city still highly advised flood insurance, even if it was not required.

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