Charleston City Council unanimously passed a number of changes to the city's flood prevention rules Tuesday after state and federal regulators told the city last month that it must improve its handling of the threat of flooding.
But city officials and council members acknowledged that the new rules were mostly being adopted to satisfy federal requirements and that they won't really change how things are done — at least not yet.
Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources visited Charleston in August to verify the city was complying with federal regulations after residents sent a letter to the authorities alleging the city had consistently failed to protect the community from known flood risks.
The department summarized its findings in a report, which was obtained by The Post and Courier Tuesday. It explained that the city has 677 repetitively flooded homes, about a quarter of the state's total and more than any other single community.
A majority of the city's developments are in the highest-risk flood zones, the report said, and given the ongoing development pressures, that trend is expected to continue.
To set the city on a better course, the department outlined some violations that the city needs to immediately correct, as well as areas of concern that the city should — but is not required — to improve upon.
One violation was that the city's rules were missing some of the language required by the National Flood Insurance Program, such as the dates of the active flood maps and the requirement that officials determine if “proposed building sites will be reasonably safe from flooding” when reviewing development applications.
Those issues were corrected by council in advance of DNR's Oct. 22 deadline.
That will ensure the city doesn't face penalties through the flood insurance program, either by increased policy rates or by being suspended from the program altogether.
Otherwise, the changes won't mean much in reality, city officials said, because they're already doing what's required. Those things just haven't been spelled out in the rule book until now, they said.
"This document itself is literally a 'check the box' in order to get ourselves off the short-term list of not being in compliance," said Councilwoman Carol Jackson.
But some residents and nonprofit leaders who spoke at the council meeting said there are problems with the way the city reviews developments to make sure they don't flood future residents or neighboring properties.
Ana Zimmerman, a James Island resident who helped draft the letter to FEMA, lambasted the city's reaction to the state's report.
"FEMA is telling the city that Charleston is non-compliant and Charleston must change," she said. "This is unacceptable."
Eileen Dougherty, who lives on James Island, said developers are changing how water drains through land because they often use fill dirt to build up their sites, a practice that is not regulated.
"It creates dams and water goes around to surrounding properties," she said. "How can we put developments in place that don’t harm existing homeowners?"
While the new rules included a measure to restrict how developers use fill dirt when building along streams or rivers, the regulation doesn't apply to the majority of Charleston's landscape because only one stream in the city, Church Creek, has been identified as having the potential to cause flooding.
Stephen Julka, the city's floodplain manager, explained that those regulations will come in handy if other streams and rivers are studied and added to the flood maps in the future.
Still, many of DNR's other suggestions that could have an impact in Charleston have not yet been proposed to City Council. The changes voted on Tuesday represented only a fraction of the needed improvements listed in the report.
Julka said those other changes will trigger more substantial changes, and therefore need to be phased in to make sure they're implemented properly. City spokesman Jack O'Toole said the rest of the updates should be introduced by the spring.
That was explained to the council members who attended the Public Works Committee meeting earlier in the day, Julka said.
Councilman Bill Moody said he wasn't aware of that plan. He said he had just received DNR's report that evening and had not had a chance to read it.
In addition to the policy changes, the report identified serious problems with the city's floodplain management program and its process for making sure repeatedly flooded homes were being improved to avoid future damages.
Julka, for instance, is the city's first floodplain manager who was hired six months ago, and he hasn't been actively involved in the planning and review processes, according to the report.
"I’m still figuring out how, exactly, I fit into this whole process," he said Tuesday.
That's something the city will also work to improve in the coming months.