Charleston City Council put off a decision that would change how far off the ground new or renovated buildings must be constructed after suffering substantial damage.

The city's proposed standard — called "freeboard" — would require homeowners with significant damage to raise their homes 2 feet above federal flooding standards if the cost to rebuild meets or exceeds half the home's value. Currently, the city requires anyone who raises their homes to comply with a freeboard requirement of 1 foot above the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s standard.

Depending on the location, FEMA’s minimum level could be as much as 15 feet above sea level, according to the city's floodplain manager, Stephen Julka. In places considered velocity zones — where buildings can suffer damage from wave action as well as rising water — homeowners would be required to elevate their homes on piers or stilts. Homes outside that area could use soil to increase height.

On Tuesday night, Councilman Keith Waring requested the matter be deferred. He spoke against the proposal, maintaining his stance from February when he voted against it.

Waring said his concern was for homeowners faced with rebuilding after a different kind of loss, like a fire, who would then have to face rebuilding under the FEMA and two-foot standard. He called it an “unfunded mandate.”

When the City Council discussed the issue in February, a request was made that only new construction be required to comply with the FEMA and freeboard requirement.

athe state Department of Natural Resources last week sent City Council a letter supporting freeboard requirements and said the change would have to apply to both new buildings and substantial renovations of existing ones.

"Over the past four years, our office has seen multiple flood events that have exceeded the 1 percent annual chance flood, which has resulted in damage to structures that met only the minimum elevation," said Maria Cox Lamm, state flood mitigation program coordinator.

Freeboard requirements help in two ways, Julka said: FEMA doesn't incorporate anticipated sea level rise in their elevation requirements and the more a city does to improve its Community Rating System score, the more its homeowners may see lower flood insurance rates.

Julka said the move from 1 foot to 2 feet of freeboard would change flood insurance premiums from a 20 percent reduction to a 25 percent reduction. To increase the reduction to 30 percent, the city will provide more education and outreach on the city's website by scanning and digitizing elevation certificates.

Not all Charleston homes would be affected by the change. About half of the city falls into a FEMA flood zone where the regulations apply. Also, owners of historic homes may get a variance from the elevation requirement.

David Stroud, a consultant for the city on the Community Rating System, said there are 26,000 flood insurance policy holders with FEMA in Charleston.

To Waring’s concerns about available funding for homeowners, Stroud said FEMA includes $30,000 in its flood insurance policies for hazard mitigation assistance and if homeowners the need more, they may apply for grants.

Andrew Muller, a member of the South Carolina Insurance Association and president of Mappus Insurance Agency, told City Council a standard homeowner policy includes 10 percent for any additional costs incurred to come into compliance with local laws or ordinances.

Councilwoman Carol Jackson said the council was “arguing about a foot difference” and that the city can’t do anything to change FEMA elevation requirements.

“We can do away with one foot freeboard," Jackson said, "but we can’t do away with what FEMA says.”

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

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