By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News
Action taken three years ago by the Isle of Palms City Council apparently has at least slowed down the once-common process of tearing down small homes that are a vital part of the island’s history and replacing them with much larger residences. The provision in the city’s zoning ordinance that limited renovation work to no more than half the value of a home considered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to be in a flood plain – and only every five years – was eliminated by the Council in 2018. That, according to IOP Building, Planning and Zoning Director Douglas Kerr, was an issue because “J.C. Long homes” and other small homes that have been on the island for up to three-quarters of a century have been appraised at a lot less than the land they sit on.
“For whatever reason, appraisals and tax assessments were putting all the money into the land alone,” said Kerr. “So we had this situation where you might have a 1,300-square-foot house and the value given to it was only $30,000 or $40,000 or $50,000. A number of people wanted to do fairly simple upgrades, like air conditioning, windows or a roof, but that kind of work was triggering the 50% rule.” “That was leading to more demolition of older homes. Too many were being replaced with larger homes that sometimes were out of character with the surrounding area,” he added, pointing out that some older homes are now being renovated rather than being torn down. The change in the zoning ordinance was spearheaded by recommendations from the city’s Planning Commission and by Council Member Ryan Buckhannon. “I was trying to find ways to keep the character of the small J.C. Long homes and ranch homes on the island,” said Buckhannon, who served on the Council from 2000 until 2016, retired for one term then entered the political fray again for the November 2017 voting cycle. “This gives people an option and gets rid of a lot of the bigger-footprint homes that can increase runoff and flooding.” “It helps maintain the character of the island. Iconic homes were going by the wayside because of the red tape and regulations, and it kept families from moving to the island,” Buckhannon added. “There have been several homes that would have been torn down that have been renovated. This not only maintains the historic character of the island but helps mitigate the drainage problems that arise from larger homes, which sometimes take up 40% of the lot.” Kerr explained that FEMA has two similar but separate 50% rules. One concerns structures in a flood plain that are substantially damaged by a fire or flood, for example. If the work entails spending more than half the value of the home to repair, the building must be elevated to standards set by FEMA or the municipality. The 50% rule eliminated by the IOP Council in 2018, established before Kerr took his current job, was included in the city’s zoning ordinance to help give homeowners a financial break on their flood insurance. Kerr said FEMA’s Community Rating System has changed in the past quarter-century and that the 50% rule was no longer benefiting local residents. Kerr pointed out, however, that IOP’s standards are still higher than those in FEMA’s new flood plain maps, which went into effect early this year. For example, FEMA requires many oceanfront homes to be elevated to 10 feet above sea level, but, in some cases along the shore, that’s only a few feet higher than ground level. The city’s regulations demand that homes in a flood plain be 14 feet above mean sea level. “We went with the flood water elevation of Hurricane Hugo plus 1 foot,” Kerr said. He added that many properties are no longer in a high-hazard flood plain, especially those on and around Carolina Boulevard and Cameron Boulevard. “We held ourselves to a higher standard than FEMA required when we established the 14-foot minimum,” Kerr pointed out. “And we’re not holding the older homes to the higher standard we’re holding new construction to.”
“If you are on the ground and in a flood zone, you are still beholden to the 50% rule, but it’s no longer cumulative over five years. You can do a project every year if you choose, but each project still has to be within the 50% rule,” Kerr concluded. “If the house is elevated above the flood plain, the 50% rules goes away.”