Our Town with William Kelly: Tougher elevation requirements could be ‘difficult’ for property owners, zoning official says

William Kelly  |  Our Town  |  July 29, 2022

Last year, town consultant Woods Hole Group told town officials that higher seawalls and building elevations will be necessary to prepare for flooding caused by rising sea levels.

Now it’s up to town officials to figure out how to adopt those changes.

In February, Public Works Director Paul Brazil reported to the Town Council where to get started from a public works perspective. Brazil focused on modifications to town-owned facilities and infrastructure and protecting the Lake Worth shore.

Earlier this month, it was Zoning Director Wayne Bergman’s turn. He outlined floodplain development and Comprehensive Plan changes facing the council if it is going to require significantly higher ground-floor elevations, as Massachusetts-based Woods Hole recommended in its Level Up Palm Beach coastal resiliency report.

“This is a snapshot of decisions we will be asking you to make in the future,” Bergman told the council at its July 12 meeting.

The question at the heart of the floodplain development issue is how much the town should require of property owners and how soon.

Woods Hole recommended the town require three feet of “freeboard,” which refers to additional height above the FEMA minimum elevation requirement in flood-prone areas. Currently, the town requires one foot of freeboard for the vast majority of residential and non-residential buildings, Bergman said.

There are 1,247 homes within the special flood hazard areas of the town, according to Bergman.

Bergman said floodplain regulations are important for improving the safety of buildings and protecting their occupants from substantial flooding – especially on a barrier island like Palm Beach. But he suggested the council consider a more moderate approach.

“Most of our buildings have [a requirement of] one foot of freeboard,” Bergman said. “Going to three feet would push many buildings to be much taller than they are today. Maybe we could do two feet of freeboard.”

Current elevation requirements are triggered whenever an owner builds a new building or when renovations to an existing building reach 50 percent or more of its value within the span of a year.

Woods Hole recommended the town lower that value threshold to 25 percent over a span of 10 years. That would mean many more property owners would have to comply sooner with higher elevation standards.

Bergman said that would be a very tough bar for the owners to meet.

“Even at the 50 percent value, we have problems today,” he said. “It’s difficult for the owner. If you replace your roof and remodel your kitchen, chances are you’ve hit that 50 percent value. I recommend we don’t go to 25 percent.”

He suggested the enforcement time frame be extended from one year to two, instead of 10. “That would help us capture some people and say, ‘you must raise your FEMA elevation,’” Bergman said. “But [an enforcement window of] 10 years would be very problematic.”

Some parts of town are not in a flood hazard area and have no minimum elevation requirement. Woods Hole is recommending setting a base elevation requirement in those areas, Bergman said. “It’s going to push buildings up [higher] in areas where there isn’t a high risk of flooding,” he said.

Woods Hole also recommended the town streamline some of the regulations in its zoning code. For example, there are nine different definitions of building height in the code. Bergman said he strongly agrees.

“The zoning commission and consultants are reviewing that right now,” he said.

Compliance with the higher standards would help the town earn more points in the voluntary Community Rating System or CRS, Bergman said. A higher rating within the system means greater flood insurance premium discounts for property owners. The town recently was upgraded to a Class 6, which means a 20 percent discount for owners in premium flood hazard areas, Bergman said.

The council did not take any action at the meeting. Bergman said his presentation was informational and it’s still early in the implementation process.

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