Fenwick Island Passes Freeboarding Ordinance

Chris Shearer

Contributing Writer

FENWICK ISLAND — Despite some pushback from the general public, property owners could soon be free to freeboard in Fenwick Island.

The practice of freeboarding has been a much discussed issue in Fenwick Island since FEMA recommended it following Hurricane Sandy in 2014. It is said to offer homes increased protection from floods and rising sea levels and can result in reduced insurance premiums for residents. Although many of the homes in Fenwick are already raised to some degree to allow for potential flooding, town officials were considering making it a requirement for new construction.The Fenwick Town Council passed a second reading of a proposed change to the height ordinance in Fenwick Island by a margin of 5-2.

Fenwick Town Councilman Gardner Bunting said, “freeboarding was brought to our attention by FEMA. Every town or every county in the state of Delaware has adopted some form of freeboarding. We are the only one who hasn’t.”

In a previous town council meeting, Bunting voiced his concern that if freeboarding were mandated and the height limit was not increased, people would be forced to build substandard homes in order to meet the requirements of the town code.

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

The proposal took a small step forward after a year and a half of residential polling, public hearings, and numerous committees discussing the ordinance. The charter ordinance committee held votes to determine whether or not to postpone the town council vote on the height change proposal till July, and a subsequent vote to withdraw the ordinance change all together both ended in a deadlock, forcing the Town Council to hold the second reading.

The free boarding issue has become about much more than sea level rise and insurance premiums. Opponents to the proposed change say that, since the ordinance isn’t specific in the circumstance that one could raise one’s home or business, it would allow anyone to add up to an additional two feet to their structure anywhere on Fenwick Island.

They maintain that the ordinance should only effect the bayside properties where flooding is more of a regular concern. There were also questions from residents about whether or not there should be a height increase in commercial building regulations at all and fears that it would open the door to changing the complexion of the quaint coastal community.

Opposition to the change was strongly voiced by Councilwoman Julie Lee.

“I am strongly opposed to the ordinance being passed as written, it does not address the sea level rise, it does not encourage freeboard nor does it provide relief for flooding to homes,” said Lee.  “It seems to me that it’s nothing more than a move to raise the height.”

Lee also questions the thinking behind the ordinance as well.

“The thinking and the motives behind the raising of this height limit are questionable to me,” said Lee.
“It seems that any change in the ordinance, if the purpose is to encourage freeboard, to eliminate the flooding on the bay side, and address sea level rise then at minimum it needs to refer to new construction and major renovations only. But these alternative ways have not been considered.”

Despite her opposition to the language of the ordinance Lee maintained, “every single member of the town council is in favor of free boarding.”