Legislation alters flood-area zoning height exemptions

AN AMENDMENT TO flood-prone area zoning laws related to the elevation of homes above flooding projections has reined in potential massive height variances for new homes. It is expected to result in more-resilient homes being built in Rhode Island. This home in North Kingstown along Narragansett Bay was built with the idea that flood waters could flow through the bottom floors without disturbing living space above. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
AN AMENDMENT TO flood-prone area zoning laws related to the elevation of homes above flooding projections has reined in potential massive height variances for new homes. It is expected to result in more-resilient homes being built in Rhode Island. This home in North Kingstown along Narragansett Bay was built with the idea that flood waters could flow through the bottom floors without disturbing living space above. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

PROVIDENCE – Among the bills signed into law by Gov. Gina M. Raimondo following the most recent legislative session, one included a zoning ordinance amendment that affects coastal and flood-zone home-height allowances.

The amendment was related to property-height variances in flood zones for new and renovated buildings, with the end goal of mitigating flooding hazards while keeping the character of their neighborhoods intact. The amendment does this by modifying a piece of 2018 zoning legislation – one that had yet to be implemented –  affecting potential home heights. In the 2018 legislation, the height exemptions were based on U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps or a range of Coastal Resource Management Council flood maps. The law as it existed prior to the 2019 amendment also solely tied those exemptions to base flood elevation – that is, the level that water would rise to in a projected 100-year flood above sea level – and not the level of the land relative to sea level.

Planners in South Kingstown, Charlestown and Narragansett noticed that by the rules of the 2018 legislation, which were set to take effect in September, homes in flood zones and coastal areas had the potential to receive significant height variances.

The 2018 law allowed buildings’ heights to be measured from the expected storm surge level, untying potential homes from the land level, or grade of the land, they were situated on. The issue was that storm surge levels in some areas can potentially upwards of 17 to 20 feet, meaning that new homes in those areas could have been potentially that much taller than their neighbors’ existing homes.

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The 2018 bill introduced CRMC’s series of 100-year storm flood maps to flood-area zoning rules but did not specify which map should be used. The intention was to allow builders and home renovators to have a building base higher than the standard building code requires without their allotted height being penalized for accommodating building design for flooding.

“Because Rhode Island is a leader in coastal science and planning, CRMC developed a series of flood maps that more accurately depict flood risks in our state. Allowing planners and developers to use more accurate flood maps is just common sense,” Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, one of the sponsors of the 2018 and 2019 legislation, told PBN.

However, municipal planners were worried that the new rule would take a toll on the coastal communities’ characters, most of which have a maximum building height of 35 feet, according to the CRMC. To deal with the issue, the CRMC and the Rhode Island Builders Association worked in collaboration with the coastal communities to come up with the zoning changes for this year, and the rules went into effect immediately upon being signed into law.

“After last year’s bill passed, we heard feedback from [cities & towns as well as planners and developers] that [the] bill allowed for too many map options … which made it difficult for cities and towns to update their zoning ordinances,” said Euer. “A consensus was reached by the stakeholders that the state should direct which [of the] CRMC maps should be used as an alternative to the FEMA map.”

The 2019 amendment to the 2018 legislation specifically uses the CRMC 100-year storm-surge flood map that presumes 3 feet of sea level rise.

The 2019 amendment also returns average ground level back into the home height equation. Homes in flood zones will now be able to receive an exemption to their height based on the CRMC maps or the FEMA maps, but the home heights will be dependent on the level of the land they are on, preventing coastal homes with massive height exemptions due to a high flood height.

“I’ve heard about other coastal communities who have addressed this issue, only to have towering structures being built along the coast line,” said Euer. “My intention was to balance the elevation issue with the maximum height restrictions.”

All homes in flood zones in Rhode Island, by state building code, are required to be built 1 foot above flood levels. Both the 2018 and 2019 legislation are designed to allow and create an incentive for residents to raise their homes higher than the minimum required height over flood waters, if not by equal amounts, while remaining within the municipality’s zoning rules.

Those using the FEMA maps are allowed to build up to 5 feet above the 1-foot-above flood-level minimum in the state code minus the base level of the ground the structure is built on while taking into account the municipal height restrictions. For example, if in a municipality that has a 35-foot height restriction, a home that has an average elevation of 10 feet above sea level but is in a flood zone that reaches 15 feet, the builder can build a home up to a maximum of 45 feet (the calculation is: 35 feet+(15+5-10) = 45 feet).

For a builder using the CRMC maps (which presume 3 feet of sea level rise, something the FEMA maps do not take into account), the given flood elevation including sea level rise, minus the average elevation of the home creates the maximum building height. Thus, for the same home (in a municipality that has a maximum height restriction of 35 feet) that is located at 10 feet above sea level and is located in an area which the CRMC calculates will see a 23-foot 100-year storm surge, the maximum height of the building can be 48 feet (35 feet+(23-10)=48 feet).

CRMC Policy Analyst James Boyd said he expects that the new rules will result in an increase on homeowners better protecting both new homes and significantly renovated homes from flood risk. Boyd also noted that those that take advantage of the height exemption will have lower flood insurance taxes.

“At this point, it’s well-known that we’re dealing with more frequent and more intense flooding events due to sea level rise and climate change. Billions of dollars are spent to help businesses, homeowners and communities recover from floods,” Euer said. “We need to make adjustments to our land use and zoning laws to prevent damage as much as possible. Allowing homeowners to elevate their property is one of many strategies Rhode Island should be implementing, and I was happy to sponsor this legislation.”

Chris Bergenheim is the PBN web editor. You may reach him at Bergenheim@PBN.com.

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