Fenwick Residents Asked To Weigh In On Freeboarding

FENWICK ISLAND – Town officials are hoping a survey will help gauge public opinion regarding freeboarding and what effect it should have on building height in Fenwick Island.

The town last week sent out a survey asking residents whether they thought structures in Fenwick Island should be allowed to go 18-24 inches above the current height limit to accommodate for freeboarding — raising a home above predicted flood elevation. Citizens are asked to return the survey by Dec. 1.

While freeboarding itself has already been incorporated into most Fenwick Island homes, the question of whether or not an increase in the town’s 30-foot height limit should go with it is a controversial one.

“It’s a very emotional issue,” said Council member Julie Lee. “Everyone has a strong opinion.”

The survey that’s been sent out to town residents is non-binding but was proposed by Mayor Gene Langan as a way to poll the public. It asks people just one question: “With new construction, if there is an 18-24-inch increase in the lowest floor to accommodate for Freeboarding, should the owner be allowed to raise the overall height of the structure by 18-24 inches above the current 30’ height limit?”

Freeboarding has been a hot topic in Fenwick Island since FEMA recommended it following Hurricane Sandy. The practice is said to offer homes increased protection from rising waters and can result in reduced flood insurance premiums. While many of the homes in Fenwick are already elevated in some way to allow for potential flooding, town officials are considering making it a requirement for new construction.

“FEMA recommended to towns close to the water that they incorporate the use of freeboard into their zoning codes,” Lee said.

Though the town council began discussing the issue last year, because many Fenwick Island property owners were away for the winter the topic was tabled. In May, as homeowners streamed in for the summer, the town hosted a public meeting to discuss freeboard and what impact it should have on the town’s longstanding 30-foot height limit.

“Over 200 people showed up,” Lee said. “The place was packed. It was a very clear opposition to raising the height limit was strong.”

The summer’s election further delayed a decision regarding freeboard and height limits but the discussion resumed this fall. Feelings among council members appear to be mixed.

At an October meeting, Councilman Gardner Bunting said that if freeboarding were mandated and the height limit was not increased, people would be forced to build substandard homes.

“Everybody in town’s going to end up with a flat roof,” he said.

Lee says she’s a firm supporter of freeboarding.

“It makes sense,” she said. “It prevents flooding. Everybody on a barrier island should elevate their homes.”

That does not, however, need to go hand in hand with a height increase, according to Lee.

“It is very possible to incorporate 18 to 24 inches of freeboard and build a two-story home and still be at 30 feet.”

She compared increasing the town’s height limit by one to two feet to opening Pandora’s Box.

Resident John Rymer also believes it would lead to further jumps in building height.

“I’m afraid it’ll be the beginning of a continual effort to drive homes up,” he said, adding that if that happened incorporated Fenwick Island would look a little different than unincorporated Fenwick.

Rymer said he found the town’s survey confusing, as it combined both the topic of freeboarding and building height in one question.

“I think almost everybody is in favor of freeboarding but we’re split on the issue of raising the height limit,” he said.

Rymer says the height limit was set at 30 feet decades ago because residents didn’t want their small town to have the high rises of neighboring municipalities. Lee said the shorter structures provided residents with water views and sunsets that would otherwise be blocked.

“It’s one of the quaint things about Fenwick Island,” she said. “It’s one of the things people like.”

The results of the freeboarding survey are expected to be discussed at the town council meeting set for Dec. 11.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.