Folly Beach SC is a low-lying sea island on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The coastline is always in flux and it has continually shifted its shape over hundreds of years, especially in the lowcountry that makes up the South Carolina coastal region. Construction on Folly Beach is governed by City of Folly Beach Code and, for the most part, they rely on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to define the flood heights in any given area. And, on this tiny barrier island close by to downtown Charleston, those flood heights are all set to change soon - but not in the way people may hope.
FEMA has the onerous task of defining flood zones throughout the USA - something we've talked about plenty of times before.
On Folly Beach, you can potentially have 3 zones:
- X Zone: An area outside of the 500 year flood plain and outside of the 1% and 0.2% chance of flooding (good luck finding that on Folly Beach!)
- AE Zone: An area subject to a 1% chance of flooding
- VE Zone: An area with a 1% chance of flooding AND with a significant velocity hazard (i.e. subject to the effect of braking storm waves. Folly Beach uses the 'V' designation for this).
Now the City of Folly Beach adds a twist to flood zones. They recognize what happened in past hurricanes and how non-conforming buildings can be damaging in flood situations. During the stages of construction, Folly considers the whole of the island to be in a FEMA flood zone "V." Once a building is completed, it then reverts to the FEMA defined flood zone - this mostly affects your flood insurance. So if you are in an "AE12 Zone," for construction they will assume its a V12. You will also be required to sign a document promising NOT to enclose the downstairs flood space (they DO check, so be careful).
City Code takes this flood height, or Base Flood Elevation, and adds an additional foot to create the lowest height that you can designate as the first floor of any new building. In technical terms this is known as the "lowest horizontal structural member" (LHSM). For most of the Tri-County area, this also defines the height to which you can build your home and how you can enclose the space between the ground and the first floor joists.
So in 2016, FEMA issued a new preliminary set of flood zone maps, which you can find HERE. These have the same designation as the existing maps with an additional "K" suffix. Many areas will change to a lower risk, meaning improved insurance rates. So for example, East Erie Ave, just off Center St, is currently in an AE15 flood zone and will probably become AE9 if the new proposals are adopted. At this point it is tempting to put the banners out and believe that building is going to get much easier, however, it's not. There are two considerations at play here. Firstly, as we mentioned, everything on Folly Beach is considered VE Zone for construction, and secondly, FEMA have been promising to release the new flood maps for the last few years with the latest being 4/18. I would not bet the farm on that happening any time soon.
If you buy an older property that is grandfathered you have some leeway, but again be careful. Spend over 50% of the value of the building (not the land) on an upgrade and you must bring it all up to modern code, including the flood height. You would not be the first owner caught in this trap. A good guide to values is available on your property tax assessment, which will list the lot and building separately.
One last point, FEMA acts pretty reasonably and have an appeals process if you feel you have been penalized by a broad brush approach to flood zone designation. It's called Letter of Map Amendments (LOMA). Essentially, this means that with the help of a Surveyor (at your expense), you can possibly get your property out of the flood zone if you prove that the elevation of the structure (that's the ground it sits on) is above the Base Flood Elevation.
Note: When it comes to construction and development in Charleston SC, we've got the experience. Our construction team is currently managing both new build and renovation projects on Folly Beach and know the regulatory building environment well. Find out how we can help you bring your to dream of living beach side to reality.