City Weighs Elevating Private Lots To Combat Flooding Woes

OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week approved an updated hazard mitigation plan related to pending sea level rise, but not before a broader discussion about the chronic flooding issues in certain areas downtown.

Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville on Tuesday presented to the Mayor and Council an updated hazard mitigation plan outlining the town’s measured response to rising sea levels. The plan is required to be updated every five years and submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for review and approval before being implemented after a requisite public hearing.

On Tuesday, Neville outlined three alternatives for the updated hazard mitigation plan, which includes the community’s adaptive measures to rising sea levels over the next several decades. Included in the plan are measured responses to pending sea level rise in terms of beach erosion, dunes and seawalls, Inlet maintenance and stormwater management, for example.

It was the latter that raised the most concern.

“Ocean City has traditionally placed a high priority on storm readiness and protection of the community,” the preferred alternative reads. “The same measures taken to mitigate the impacts of a Category I storm even are generally considered to be the first steps in preparing for long-term sea level rise. Public and private measures to decrease future loss from this hazard include shoreline protection, raising the level of local streets when major infrastructure improvements are scheduled, improving bulkheads and constructing buildings at a higher elevation.”

Neville explained FEMA and its partners plan decades out for hazard mitigation related to sea level rise, but because of Ocean City’s existing problems with flooding, the time to consider alternatives, including raising street levels in some areas, is sooner rather than later.

Councilman Wayne Hartman said it could be time to amend the town’s building code to include a section requiring certain property owners to raise their lots when they redevelop. The town’s long-range plan is to elevate the chronically-flooded St. Louis Avenue, for example, but unless the private property owners follow suit, the problems would only be exacerbated.

“Is it worth putting something in the building code?” he said. “Somebody redeveloping might not be in a position to raise their property. My thought is putting something in the building code that requires owners to raise their property if and when they redevelop. If this is real, we need to be proactive before it becomes a problem.”

Neville pointed out simply raising one individual lot when it is redeveloped would only redirect the flooding.

“The problem with doing it lot by lot is if you raise your lot, you only push the problem to your neighbors unless they raise their lots also,” he said.

Hartman said the time is now to consider requiring elevating private lots in the downtown area before it is redeveloped in the future.

“When I think of flooding, I think of downtown and that’s an area that is primed for redevelopment,” he said. “In five years, we could lose a lot of opportunities to do some of these things. Downtown flooding is a reality already.”

Councilman Dennis Dare said a plan was put in place decades ago to grade much of the resort so that floodwaters drained toward the bay, but a lot of the downtown area had been developed decades earlier and was not included in the plan.

“We have had something in place going back decades,” he said. “In the 60s and 70s, the city engineer set a grade for the city so that all of the streets drained toward the bay. When we have a high tide, it was the old part of town that wasn’t engineered to drain properly.”

Dare pointed to the current redevelopment plans for the old Cropper Concrete plant along the bay at 1st Street as an example.

“If you raise St. Louis Avenue, the neighboring properties would flood,” he said. “When you look at redeveloping the old Cropper Concrete plant, you can’t raise St. Louis Avenue until the surrounding properties are raised.”

Hartman reiterated a desire to have something in the building codes requiring elevated lots when properties are redeveloped.

City Engineer Terry McGean explained the existing code has specific language about elevations for structures in the floodplain, but did not include language about lot elevations.

“The issue we have is, the current code elevating structures and grading toward the street,” he said. “The code does not require elevating the lot. It only requires elevating the structures.”

After considerable debate, the council voted unanimously to forward the town’s favored alternative for its hazard mitigation plan to FEMA for approval and vowed to revisit the issue of raising private property lots in the future.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.