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Charleston City Council OKs new construction height requirements in flood-prone areas

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Tuesday flooding_3.jpg (copy) (copy)

Charleston City Council is poised to vote on a freeboard ordinance that requires new construction to be 2 feet above base flood lines, but existing flood-damaged homes will have to be raised only 1 foot. Above, flooding in downtown Charleston on Dec. 24, 2019. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

After nearly a year of discussion, debate and alterations to a proposal aimed at sea level rise and development, the Charleston City Council on Tuesday night approved a regulation mandating new height requirements for new construction, a rule called freeboard.

If a Charleston homeowner in a flood-prone area suffers damage that costs more than half the value of the home to repair — from flooding, fire or something else — the owner must elevate the home 1 foot above Federal Emergency Management Agency standards when rebuilding. Depending on the location, FEMA’s minimum level could be as much as 15 feet above sea level.

The freeboard requirement was hotly contested leading up to last year’s city election. It was ultimately put on hold and then altered. The agreed upon new regulation requires new residential construction, commercial, industrial or other non-residential structures to be built 2 feet above FEMA standards and would keep current residential homes that may see substantial damage to the 1 foot requirement. 

The new rule will go into effect on July 1. 

A few weeks ago, City Council members made a few attempts to approve the new rule, but failed. On Tuesday night, Councilman Jason Sakran, who voted against the measure last time, asked for the matter to be recalled and voted upon. It received a 10-3 vote, with Councilmen Mike Seekings, Karl Brady and Harry Griffin voting against it. 

Seekings, who represents some downtown peninsula residents, said he voted against the new requirement because there wasn't a rule banning "fill and build" development. 

Fill and build is a practice of bringing in dirt, commonly packable sandy soil, from outside a site being developed and building a home or building on top of that in order to meet FEMA requirements. Residents in West Ashley, James Island and Johns Island have blamed new flooding on that practice.

Under the new freeboard rule, a developer could truck in soil and build up the lot so that it is the required height above base flood elevation and the city's freeboard rule, but could create flooding woes for neighbors. 

"It creates an inconsistency," Seekings said. 

Mayor John Tecklenburg said the new stormwater manual, approved during the last City Council meeting, would address that problem from happening because it requires certain grades and soils used. 

After the vote, Tecklenburg brought up a new resolution requiring a flat 2-foot freeboard rule for new construction and residential homes that see substantial damage. After failing to push a vote, the Council voted the measure down in a 5-7 vote, with Tecklenburg, and Council members Brady, Peter Shahid, Ross Appel and Carol Jackson voting for the measure. Councilman Kevin Shealy abstained. 

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Reach Mikaela Porter at 843-937-5906. Follow her on Twitter @mikaelaporterPC. 

Mikaela Porter joined The Post and Courier in April 2019 and writes about the city of Charleston. Previously, Mikaela reported on breaking news, local government, school issues and community happenings for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

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