A recommendation for compromise regarding the proposed 3-0 flood plain freeboard elevation

There is little doubt that the impact of immediately imposing a proposed 3-0 freeboard ordinance in Norfolk, Virginia Beach or Portsmouth, will stop homeowners from building additions to their existing homes in flood zones A and V.  That is a serious problem for homeowners and their contractors in Hampton Roads. 

This issue is teetering on the need for FEMA to reduce the premium it charges for flood insurance that is a mandated for these property owners.  The insurance rate could otherwise be increased if FEMA was faced with having to cover the actual market rate risk.   That would also be detrimental to homeowners living in homes built on properties in the 100-year flood plain. 

FEMA is willing to use its allocated funds (at a financial loss to federal income taxpayers) to supplement the cost of flood insurance where communities make an effort to curtail development and/or improvements to structures on flood plain properties.  Communities, including the cities of Hampton Roads, subscribe to the Community Rating System to accomplish this goal.  The motives are well-placed.  Why wouldn’t Norfolk want its citizens to benefit from lower flood insurance rates?

The problem is that the sudden enactment of a radically new elevation requirement is a bad business decision; bad for the individual homeowners of these properties, bad for builders and architects of residential additions and bad for the city that would lose property tax revenue by denying these projects.  In one coastal state there is a directive to the localities that suggests a discretionary approach that allows one foot freeboard approval up to a maximum size for a residential addition.  I think this is a saner approach.

The applicant for a residential addition would file an application for approval that demonstrates the project adds less than, say 500 SF, to the property.  The same project could continue to be required to abide by the 50% improvements value maximum.  This is already in effect in all of our Hampton Roads cities, whereby if the value of the improvements is 50% or more than the appraised value of existing house it would have to be elevated to new the 3-0 freeboard height.

Setting the maximum addition size at 500 SF covers virtually any garage conversion project, transforming an existing garage to living space.  The new living space in such a project would have to comply with the one-foot freeboard rule, likely necessitating raising the ceiling and possibly the roof of a garage in order to construct new first floor living space above the concrete slab of the existing garage. 

Five hundred square feet would cover a wide variety of lifestyle home improvement projects, such as: an elderly adult moving in with grown children; an enclosed sunroom; kitchen/breakfast rooms; even a modest media or recreation room.  The value of such an addition would likely be less than $100,000 and under the 50% added value maximum, at least for waterfront homes. 

A high-dollar waterfront home could be severely affected by the proposed 3-0 free board regulation.  Imagine a home that is assessed at $ million wants to build a large sunroom on the existing house.  The consequence of imposing the 3-0 free board regulation on such a property is to effectively forbid it from ever happening.  The whole house would have to be elevated, an impractical idea for a large home, or torn down and construct a new house.

At the other extreme, say a modest home that is in an A or V elevation area wants to covert the existing garage into a bedroom suite for a parent-in-law to move into the home with the adult children and grandchildren.  The 3-0 freeboard regulation will deny this project from happening.  The aging parent cannot move into the house, the adult children would have to sell the house and move somewhere else.  They could not afford to elevate the whole house and/or the house is not aged to the point that it is a tear down.  In time that will happen.

I have listened to the arguments in favor of the 3-0 freeboard regulation proposal.  My recommendations for allowing residential additions up to 500 SF is a reasonable approach.  I remain skeptical of the 3-0 freeboard impact on commercial and multifamily projects.  I imagine that enclosed ground floor level occupancy will be no longer be possible. 

A small apartment project or condominium or an office will only be allowed to have parking under the building; occupancy could only be on the second floor.  It will make such projects more expensive to construct, less desirable to habitate.  That will be an added cost for the developer to ponder,  in advance of making an investment in a project.  Whereas, the individual homeowner has no investment option to postpone, the 3-0 freeboard minimum is either: (1) huge additional remodeling expense, or (2) move on.   

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    Urban Underbelly is a blog that seeks to share the back stories of successes and struggles in achieving the visions of New Urbanism, especially in Hampton Roads, Virginia

    New Urbanism: is a city planning and architecture movement directed at the creation and restoration of vibrant neighborhood places: centralized, sustainable, walkable and socially diverse.
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