Horry County Council won’t change the county’s flood ordinance — at least for now.
Despite one councilman saying he would ask his peers to reconsider their decision against lowering the building height requirements in county flood zones, that didn’t happen Tuesday. The standards remain unchanged.
“We had some change of heart and we decided to leave it like it is,” said councilman Harold Worley, who had previously told MyHorryNews.com that he would seek another vote on the issue. “I never saw anything that was earth-shattering either way. So there’s no need in fixing what’s not broken.”
Two weeks ago, the council voted against a proposal that would have reduced the height requirements for construction in the recently approved supplemental flood zones. These zones extend beyond the areas outlined in federal flood maps to include land that saw flooding during Hurricane Florence in 2018.
The proposed amendment called for lowering the building height requirement in the supplemental flood zones from 3 feet above the Florence floodwater level to 2 feet.
Despite the council’s Nov. 1 vote, county leaders left open the possibility of revisiting the issue on Tuesday. Under the council’s rules of procedure, a council member who is on the prevailing side of a vote can make a motion to reconsider the decision at the next council meeting before the minutes are approved.
Worley initially said he planned to do that. After voting against changing the policy at the Nov. 1 meeting, he told MyHorryNews.com in an interview that he wanted to take some more time to ensure that the decision would not severely impact the county’s flood insurance rates.
“I originally made the comment that 2 [feet] was enough,” he said then. “And some of the rest of them said, ‘No, we’ve got an opportunity here. Let’s make it 3.’”
By Tuesday night, he had changed his mind. He did not specify what led to that change. Yet even if Worley had asked the council to reconsider, there’s no guarantee that the same councilmen who voted to lower the building heights on Nov. 1 — Worley, Danny Hardee, Mark Causey, Johnny Vaught, Al Allen and chairman Johnny Gardner — would have made the same decision this week.
“I’d just as soon leave it alone,” Hardee said. “I could support 2 feet or I could support 3 feet. … When we voted that 3 feet in [last year], staff had recommended 2 feet. They didn’t recommend the 3 feet. Because of all the flooding and hurricanes and pressure, I think council just said, ‘Well, we’ll go 3 feet and be safe.’ It was that kind of thing.”
The maps for the supplemental flood zones were drawn by Western Carolina University ‘s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, which was hired by the county as a consultant when leaders looked for ways to avoid future flooding problems.
Horry County saw devastating flooding in 2015 and 2016, too, though Florence was the worst.
The design of the supplemental zones was based on Florence’s flooding. But local engineers and developers have criticized these zones. They contend the regulations increased the cost of building homes and make established neighborhoods look awkward because the houses are constructed at varying elevations. They’ve also said the county shouldn’t craft a policy based on a storm that was a historical outlier.
However, the county zones have been celebrated by advocates for flood victims. They see the policy as a safeguard, and they expressed frustration with the council for revising the matter without a data-supported reason.
“The supplemental flood zone was established to prevent catastrophic damages in areas where we know it floods and property owners are not required to carry a flood policy,” said April O’Leary, who leads the advocacy group Horry County Rising. “The county established this zone based on a comprehensive study of the historical flood in 2018 and thanks to their efforts, all flood policy holders should expect to receive discounts on their annual premiums.”
One of the factors driving the latest discussion about changing the building requirements is a legal dispute between the county and a homebuilder.
On Aug. 31, the Horry County Construction Board of Appeals voted to allow a developer to build dozens of homes at levels below the height required by the county’s flood ordinance.
An Horry County appeals board is jeopardizing federal flood insurance for Horry County residents by approving a variance allowing 46 homes to be built at a lower elevation than Horry County's supplemental flood zone.
This appeals board is made up of construction industry professionals and the panel weighs requests for exceptions to the county flood ordinance.
When the appeals board agreed that builder Great Southern Homes should be able to construct 46 houses along the Waccamaw River at a lower elevation than required by the county’s flood ordinance, the move raised red flags for both state officials and environmentalists.
A representative from the state Department of Natural Resources expressed concerns that if FEMA found out the county wasn’t upholding its own rules, there could be severe consequences, including the county being suspended from the FEMA-managed National Flood Insurance Program.
Fearing that possibility, county staff asked the board of appeals to reconsider its decision. The board did, but Great Southern Homes then filed a legal challenge over that decision (county officials have responded with a motion asking that the case be dismissed).
County leaders have said this dispute could be resolved if the building level in the supplemental zone was lowered to 2 feet above the Florence flood line. They said that was the compromise they reached with the builder.
Allen Hutto, vice president of government affairs for Great Southern Homes, attended Tuesday’s meeting and confirmed that he had been told the council would reconsider its decision about the height requirement.
Hutto said his firm had also contacted a nationally recognized flood insurance expert who disputed the notion that changing this regulation would affect residents’ access to flood insurance.
“She told us there was not going to be any impact,” he said.
Hutto said he wished council members had taken another look at the issue.
“We’re going to think about it and kind of evaluate our options,” he said. “It was only reducing it by a foot, which is still above [Florence].”
Some council members said they have been criticized so much over the proposal that they would rather leave the policy alone.
“Let’s move on,” Hardee said. “If it’s at 3 feet, leave it there. You get it from both directions.”