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Charleston councilman calls to ban flood-worsening building practice for new development


Charleston city Councilman Harry Griffin is calling for an ordinance that would ban the practice of "fill and build" development citywide. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

An effort to limit builders' use of "fill and build" — the practice of adding new soil on top of a property to raise its elevation and reduce its likelihood of flooding — is getting renewed attention in Charleston, but city leaders say it may not be as simple as passing an ordinance to ban the practice. 

City Councilman Harry Griffin is calling for an ordinance that would ban the practice of "fill and build" for new development citywide. He wants the city's legal department to craft an ordinance with that line and that line only. 

"Basically, I want them to make something that's not very specific, because I want to be able to discuss it with council and take in their recommendations," Griffin said Wednesday. He wants the city's legal counsel to consult the Dutch Dialogues team, because one of its recommendations to the city was to limit fill and build development. "I think they'll be proud to see an aggressive first step." 

The "fill and build" practice has become increasingly scrutinized, especially on Johns Island, where many feel this sort of new development increases the likelihood that neighboring properties will flood. But the practice is far from limited to Johns Island. Traditionally, a large swath of Charleston's peninsula was developed in this way.

As far as specifics, Griffin offered this: he wants the ordinance ban to be citywide, with flood-prone areas given a priority. 

Johns Island flooding (copy)

Contractors clear land and build roads for a new subdivision on Johns Island's River Road. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

"I don't want to be a dictator. My voice is not the end-all-be-all," Griffin said.

At Tuesday night's City Council meeting, Griffin garnered some support from City Council, Johns Island residents and at least one mayoral candidate, Sheri Irwin. Councilwoman Carol Jackson offered her support immediately and noted she had made an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to rein in fill and build development.

The city's legal and stormwater departments have questions, because they said it can't be as simple as he's put it.

Some of the key issues include:

  • Where does he want the ordinance to apply — citywide or in special flood hazard areas?
  • Should a certain elevation be taken into account?
  • What kind of projects would it be applied to — new development, major development, small sites, single family homes, redevelopments any type of work that involves a permit?
  • How should the city define "fill" — soil from outside a site? Clay? Sandy soil?
  • How would the city enforce this ban?
  • Would it impact pending building permits?
  • How would it impact the community?

Matt Fountain, director of Stormwater Management, said the city is updating its stormwater manual, and that work also will address the practice of using fill dirt on new development and redeveloped properties. 

Fountain said the proposed changes look to lessen the negative impacts of fill by considering volume-based requirements.

"The primary regulation is worrying about how much water your site is generating by having an impervious area or displacing water," he said. "Traditionally, the worry was how fast to get water off the site, not how much water there is on the site." 

There are currently restrictions on grades of hill and soil, as well as other specific requirements for flood-prone areas. 

If a property owner wants to redevelop, Fountain said he or she must not increase the amount of water runoff from the property. There are caveats, but Fountain said redeveloped areas often are required to reduce the amount of water runoff by 20 percent. 

New development would have to maintain the same amount of water runoff or decrease the amount of runoff during a 24-hour period. 

City Attorney Susan Herdina said those questions need answers so attorneys can make sure City Council adopts an ordinance that doesn't encroach on property rights or put the city at legal risk. Herdina said many of the questions have been vetted out through the stormwater manual update. 

Griffin said the stormwater manual update isn't as aggressive as his proposed change. He asked city staff to have a draft ordinance ready by council's Oct. 22 meeting. 

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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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