Monday, June 24, 2024

Pender County attempts to clarify hundreds of potentially confusing letters about elevating storm-damaged homes

Last week the county sent 461 letters to residents in the 100-year floodplain regarding a notice of "substantial damage determination", requiring homeowners to comply with flood damage-resistant provisions. One resident voiced his concerns (and confusion) of the main stipulation: his house needed to be elevated two feet above the base flood elevation (BFE).

A flooded house on Moores Creek, which flows into the Black River, in Currie, North Carolina on Wednesday, evening, September 19, 2018. (Port City Daily photo | Mark Darrough)
In Currie, a flooded house on Moores Creek near the Black River five days after Hurricane Florence struck the region. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Update 1 p.m. — This article has been updated to include a comment from FEMA spokesperson John Mills regarding the determination of a property’s market value.

BURGAW — When farmer Bill O’Brien received a letter from the county’s planning department late last week, he was informed that because his home had received substantial flood damage from Hurricane Florence, he would be required to “bring the building into compliance with the flood damage-resistant provisions” spelled out in a county ordinance.

“The most significant requirement is that the lowest floor, as defined by the Pender County Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance, must be elevated two feet above the regulated base flood elevation (BFE),” the letter stated. It was sent by the county’s floodplain administrator, Craig Harris.

His 2,700 square-foot, two-story home sits on 30 acres of land just northeast of Burgaw, and O’Brien said he built it on pilings less than a decade ago to ensure it was well above the Hurricane Floyd flood mark.

Related: Pender County planners mull coastal re-zonings and heightened floodplains regulations

“Now they’re telling us we have to raise it even more,” O’Brien said on Monday, adding that many of his neighbors received the letters as well and worried that their homes would need to be lifted, moved, or their properties bought out by the county. “It would have to be destroyed, knocked down, because we could never afford to pay for it to be moved or raised.”

So O’Brien headed to the county’s planning department on Tuesday to figure out what was going on.

“It turns out, our house is nearly five feet above where it needs to be,” O’Brien said after the meeting. “They were the ones who provided me with that info today. All it took was checking the base flood elevation on my property against my elevation certificate which is on file in their office.”

Pender County sent hundreds of letters

According to Planning Director Kyle Breuer, his office sent 461 letters last week, but they were not necessarily intended to direct homeowners to take action.

“The letter did not specify that an individual has to raise their house,” Breuer said on Tuesday. “It provided information on damages and potential requirements that would come into play.” 

Such requirements would be directed at homes located in Special Flood Hazard Areas – areas in the 100-year floodplain – and at homes that incurred Florence-related flood damages totaling 50 percent of their FEMA-determined market value. 

The letter also told O’Brien that if he had a flood insurance policy from the FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, his coverage may “provide a claim to help pay for work required to bring your home into compliance,” including costs associated with “demolishing and rebuilding your home, or moving your home to a site outside the floodplain.”

“Substantial Damage”

The letter to O’Brien stated that “when the cost of repair equals or exceeds 50 percent of the market value of the building, the damages are considered Substantial Damage.” 

But the FEMA-determined estimates of his home’s market value and cost of damages – listed at $92,884 and $47,373 respectively – confused and alarmed O’Brien. First, it showed flood damages at 51 percent of the home value, one percent over the compliance threshold.

Additionally, he said that his market value before the storm was $350,000, and an insurance adjustor had rated damages at $110,000. Based on these estimates, damages made up only 31 percent of his home value, and he wondered how FEMA came up with their numbers.

“I had already been told by this office, in writing, that I’m in compliance. Now, four months after the storm hit, they sent me a letter telling me that FEMA has come up with this market value for my house, and designated the amount of damage done to it,” O’Brien said.

In response to O’Brien’s account, Breuer said the FEMA estimates were used to understand the extent of damages and to provide a “baseline to assist our citizens in rebuilding.”

“These figures are derived by flood depths, length of time the structure may have been flooded and the FEMA team’s observations. They do not enter the structure and therefore these are estimates only and are used as a tool. We recommend homeowners schedule time to work with the Floodplain Administrator to make sure all information is accurate,” Breuer said.

O’Brien had said that some of his neighbors had completed rebuilding their homes, passed inspection from the county, received a certificate of occupancy, and had been living at their homes for over a month.

“Then they got that letter last week, telling them that they’re going to have to raise their house or move it,” O’Brien said.

In response, Breuer said each homeowner would be treated as an individual case based on information received by the county.

“Specifics were most likely provided by the homeowner to determine the individual case,” Breuer said in response. “We’ve found that each one is unique and needs to be treated as such.”

Arbitrary numbers?

Lastly, O’Brien was concerned that the county was setting arbitrary numbers if someone complained. He said that his father-in-law, after receiving his own letter stating total damages at 53 percent, voiced concerns at the planning department and got the percentage knocked down to 48 percent to avoid compliance with the ordinace.

Breuer said this case illustrated the opportunity, provided for all recipients of the letter, to speak with the floodplain administrator about a home’s actual damages.

“Determinations can be based on the actual damages incurred that may be outside of that original estimate provided,” Breuer said in response. “So, when a citizen comes and speaks with the Floodplain Administrator, they have an opportunity to provide the actual damages which in some instances we can evaluate the estimate versus the actual occurrence and therefore sometimes can reduce the total damages below a certain threshold.”

He gave an example of one report indicating that flooring was a “complete loss”.

“When the homeowner came in to discuss their permitting options, it was understood that the structure’s flooring was concrete with no treatment so we were able to remove the original assumption,” Breuer said.

A lack of communication

For O’Brien the confusion began with the letter’s estimate of his home value as the market value, not the tax value (Breuer later clarified that the value was determined using an average tax value per square foot).

A "Before You Begin Repairs" FEMA guide urges floodplain homeowners to always ask the local floodplain administrator any questions before you begin repairs to flood-damaged property. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Pender County)
A “Before You Begin Repairs” FEMA guide urges floodplain homeowners to always ask the local floodplain administrator any questions before you begin repairs to flood-damaged property. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Pender County)

His main issue with the letters, however, came from a lack of communication regarding floodplains regulations.

“As far as I know I’ve never seen this base flood elevation at a point where they’re talking about it right now … there’s never been a public hearing about it. This was the first time anyone has said anything about this,” O’Brien said.

Breuer said this was not true.

“A Substantial Damage Press Release was sent out months ago, also, the Floodplain Administrator and I published a video that went over Substantial Damage and steps homeowners can take to rebuild,” Breuer said.

When told the planning department was preparing to discuss regulations of 500-year and 100-year floodplains at the Board of County Commissioners meeting Tuesday night, O’Brien was still skeptical.

“Fine, but don’t send letters before that, until you have public hearings on it, before you bring it before the Board, before the county, and everyone has a chance to be heard on it,” O’Brien said.

FEMA responds: local community determines market value

After the original publication of this article, FEMA spokesperson John Mills responded with the following:

FEMA does not determine the market value of a property. The local community determines the market value.

After Hurricane Florence, some communities, including Pender County, asked FEMA to provide technical assistance to help them gather data. FEMA agreed to assist. Estimated property values and estimated repair costs were provided to FEMA by local communities. 

FEMA does not make substantial damage determinations. Local communities make substantial damage determinations based on their own local ordinances.

FEMA recommends local communities carefully examine all data and review determinations for structures that are between 35 and 60 percent damaged. Reviews should include an interior inspection conducted by a local building official.


FEMA Fact Sheet: NFIP “Substantial Damage” – What Does It Mean?


Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@localvoicemedia.com

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