King tide flooding (copy)

Rodney Clement gingerly steps from the sidewalk to the street through the waters from his home on Aiken Street as the tide in Charleston Harbor peaked at 8.69 feet, causing streets to flood in October 2015. This week, flooding experts from the Netherlands met in Charleston to analyze the city's approach to flooding infrastructure, known as the Dutch Dialogues initiative. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

A Charleston city councilman wants voters to decide whether homeowners in flood-prone areas should have to elevate their homes more than what's currently required if the home is heavily damaged by flooding or other disasters.

For months, City Council has debated raising the so-called "freeboard" requirement from 1 foot to 2 feet above the current federal standard for both new construction and homes that are significantly damaged.

At present, the city requires anyone who raises their homes to comply with a freeboard requirement of 1 foot above 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.

City leaders have advocated changing the freeboard requirement from 1 foot to 2 feet because they say it would reduce homeowners' flood insurance premiums by upwards of 25 percent.

Councilman Keith Waring wants voters to weigh in as part of the Nov. 5 citywide elections that includes the ballot for mayor.

The vote on home raising would be advisory and non-binding.

In 2015, Waring supported the decision to require new homes and any significantly damaged homes to comply with the 1-foot freeboard requirement. Since then, he learned that homes damaged by fires and other non-flooding mishaps also would have to comply, raising the cost for those already dealing with a tragedy. 

Waring said he doesn't think homes damaged by fire or non-flooding events should have to comply with the freeboard requirements. If a home were damaged more than 50 percent because of flooding, he thinks it should comply with the freeboard requirements. 

"A lot of times we would be forcing homes that never flooded to rebuild," Waring said. "We have put thousands of people in jeopardy of not being able to move back into their homes because they don't have the money to raise their homes."

In May, Waring asked City Council to defer a final freeboard vote until the city could get more information from the National Flood Insurance Program. 

Assistant city attorney Stirling Halversen said City Council has until Aug. 15 to decide whether to put the question on the ballot. If council members like the idea when they meet Tuesday, they would have to hold a special meeting to approve the referendum.

If it ends up on the Nov. 5 ballot, Halversen said the question would not be binding: The final decision still would be up to City Council.

Waring said council members should measure what voters are feeling.

"I want people to know their government is considering putting this cost on them," he said. "All of this will hopefully create more conversation among property owners to say, 'Do we want our government to do this?' "

Mayor John Tecklenburg has supported the 2-foot freeboard partly because it will improve the city’s FEMA flood insurance rating, which could reduce local flood insurance premiums.

The city's property owners depend heavily on such insurance: Since 1978, about two-thirds of all the federal flood claims made in South Carolina were made in the city. About 26,000 such policies have been written on properties in the city.

City voters already will go to the polls Nov. 5 to vote on the mayoral race, and six of 12 City Council seats also are up for grabs.

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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, covering the City of Charleston and quality of life issues. Previously, Mikaela reported on breaking news, local government, school issues and community happenings for The Hartford Courant.

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