Last month, Charleston City Council wisely decided to scrap a voter referendum on a stronger freeboard ordinance which would require most new and severely damaged homes to be built an extra foot — 2 feet total — above federally designated flood lines.
The problem wasn’t the proposal. Strengthening freeboard requirements is a sensible way to prepare Charleston for a wetter future, and it could save homeowners some money on their flood insurance premiums in the meantime.
But there’s nothing about requiring an extra foot of freeboard that makes it so controversial or portentous an issue as to require that voters weigh in.
We elect a City Council to make tough calls in the best interest of their constituents and Charleston as a whole. And this is a decision that council members should be perfectly capable of making rather than punting it to voters.
“Should be” is an important qualifier in this case, however.
The freeboard ordinance City Council is expected to take up again soon has gotten significantly muddied by a number of legitimate but almost entirely hypothetical concerns, and its wording is weaker as a result.
As it stands, passing the current wording could mean less or no savings on flood insurance costs compared to the original, stronger version. In a worst case scenario it could throw the city out of compliance with the National Flood Insurance Program altogether.
Thankfully, city officials and legal staff have promised to hold a workshop with City Council members before any additional votes are taken on the matter. There’s a lot that needs to be cleared up.
The primary concern is that requiring an extra foot of freeboard for homes that are “substantially damaged” — in need of repairs that cost at least half the home’s value — would disproportionately affect low-income residents.
And asking that damaged homes in floodplains be elevated an extra foot even when the damage is caused by something other than a flood might not immediately seem very logical, even though Federal Emergency Management Agency rules require it.
The former concern could most directly be addressed by setting up a city fund to help low-income homeowners meet the new freeboard requirement if and when their homes are damaged.
It could also mean better education and outreach programs to alert homeowners to the types of insurance they need to cover themselves against flooding and other disasters, including plans that offer “increased cost of compliance” coverage that would help cover the cost of a home elevation.
The latter concern simply acknowledges that flood-prone homes in Charleston are vulnerable now and will be even more vulnerable in the future. It doesn’t make much economic sense to invest half the value of a home rebuilding from a fire only to have it destroyed by a flood the next year, for example.
And it’s worth reminding that rebuilding homes without making them more resilient against flooding isn’t just taking a personal risk. It spreads the cost of the inevitable repairs across everyone with an NFIP flood insurance plan and, given that the NFIP is more than $20 billion in debt, across all American taxpayers.
Investing in flood mitigation and prevention is a much smarter economic decision than waiting until disaster strikes again.
Strengthening Charleston’s freeboard requirement will necessarily involve costs and tradeoffs. That’s the case with almost any kind of policy decision. So it’s important that City Council members fully educate themselves, and that they make the choice that will leave Charleston a more sustainable, resilient city.