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Revised anti-flood ordinance advances

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Pasquotank County commissioners have tentatively agreed on a new, anti-flooding ordinance — though they agreed with county staff that the new floodplain maps driving the ordinance are “inaccurate” and understate some homeowners' risks.

Commissioners last week reached consensus on four optional parts of the revised ordinance, putting it on track for adoption next month. The updated law is required so Pasquotank's property owners can remain eligible for federally-provided flood insurance, Pasquotank Planning Director Shelley Cox explained when first presenting the draft ordinance in August.

During commissioners meeting last Monday, Cox recommended commissioners require structures in a 100-year floodplain be elevated two feet above their “base flood elevation.” The county's planning board also recommended the two-foot threshold, she said, adding members debated requiring a three-foot freeboard.

That's because, in part, “we know the maps are one to two feet off,” Cox said.

Cox, joined by Pasquotank-Camden Emergency Management Coordinator Christy Saunders, reiterated they fault the maps for not considering an area's history of flooding, including due to tidal action, and continuing sea-level rise.

Several commissioners agreed that property owners on the waterfront should build higher if possible — and they would, Commissioners Frankie Meads and Jeff Dixon both said.

“I think two-foot is certainly not extreme,” said Meads, a Republican and member of the state's Building Code Council.

Commissioners also agreed the county should not tighten a regulation that could impose major costs on people with older properties.

Currently, a property owner who makes repairs or improvements to a structure worth less than half the structure's value during a 12-month period doesn’t have to bring the structure up to current construction standards. For example, someone who spends $40,000 on a $100,000 house would not have to upgrade it to current standards, but someone who spent $60,000 would.

While commissioners could lower the improvement threshold to try to force people to better fix vulnerable buildings, Cox said doing so would impose a major burden on property owners. People with older properties often don't have much money to spend on them, and they shouldn't be discouraged from keeping them livable, she said.

In one change from Cox's recommendations, commissioners agreed that new “accessory structures,” such as sheds, that are built in 100-year floodplains but worth less than $4,000 do not have to be elevated. Cox had recommended setting the value at $3,000, but Meads argued their rising costs justified a higher amount.

Commissioners also agreed with Cox that the county should not restrict using fill material to build up structures' foundations. Cox said many homes in Pasquotank's floodplains are built on sand pads, raising them enough to drain water from their lots. Forbidding fill would make many lots “unbuildable,” Cox has said previously.

In a related matter, commissioners also voted to allow county staff to enter the county into the Community Rating System that can provide major discounts on insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program. The anti-flooding measures the county is already taking should be enough to get property owners 5- or 10-percent discounts, she said.

Notably, Elizabeth City City Council is moving forward with its own anti-flooding ordinance, again to keep property owners eligible for coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program. Council recently approved holding a public hearing on the city’s ordinance on Monday.

Council also accepted city staff's recommendations of a two-foot freeboard requirement — it's a coincidence that the city's requirement matches the county's, Planning Director Matt Schelly said — and forbidding construction of solid waste or hazardous material sites in a floodplain.

Asked if there are currently any solid waste or hazardous material sites of concern in the city's floodplains, Saunders said none she was aware of.

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