With such an easy going reputation, surely it must be equally easy to build almost anything on Folly Beach? Not quite. You will be under the governance of the City of Folly Beach and their own set of building codes, and subject to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Regulations. These are different from the city codes applied in downtown Charleston SC and derived from the very different environmental requirements that come with building in a beachside community. Happily, the City of Folly is responsive and quick in their replies and, for the most part, they will try to work with you, but will enforce the codes to protect you and your neighbors. Final plan approval takes about 6 weeks assuming all is in order. Once approved, the owner, or your SC licensed contractor, can pull a building permit within a day or so.
Folly Beach SC is either designated "AE Zone" or "V Zone" as outlined by FEMA flood maps. "AE Zone" means you build off the ground so that your first-floor living space is elevated one foot above the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) - these BFE height minimums are clearly outlined by FEMA and are usually reflected on the Certificate of Elevation which must be provided. "V Zone" means you will be in an area that may experience breaking waves flowing under your home. Pilings must be resistant to scouring and there is a strict restriction on how much of the ground floor level can be blocked in - basically, very little. If you want don't want the restrictions of "X Zone," then don't go plan to have your dream home along the beach.
Buildable land is basically divided into:
Residential - One building per lot and no auxiliary dwellings.
Commercial - A few blocks on either side of Center Street with a duplex per lot or approved commercial use application.
Residential lots are mainly on septic systems so the land must be able to absorb this or "perk," whereas commercial lots are mainly on City sewer. All lots can access City water.
When considering the geography of Folly, I'll focus on the property designated as "Beach" and the challenges that come with it. Beaches are V Zone and major build restrictions will apply from day one. Ancient sand dunes run down the spine of the island so if you don't want to be restricted by V Zone regulations then move back from the marsh and beachfront to these areas. Nothing on Folly gets built "on grade" (ground level) but you will at least be much closer to terra firma. Most homes will be built on wooden piles driven deep into the ground. The beachfront itself is also not stable, it moves with the yearly storms we get hereabouts - it always has moved, as has every other barrier island. So, if you are building close to the beachfront, try to stay away from the east and west ends of the island as these are the least stable in regards to beach erosion. Also if you can't afford to lose that line of dunes on the beachfront consider beach erosion protection - even better if the neighbors will contribute. A look at Google Earth will show you where this is effective and where it's missing. Once the land has gone, the beach will belong to the Federal Government irrespective of your lot lines, so consider this early on.
There are plenty of ramshackle old homes on Folly and apart from buying an empty lot, the simplest way to start is with a teardown. Be careful not to assume that anything existing on the site will be "grandfathered." If the reconstruction costs total more than 50% of the value of the original building (not the land) then you must bring the new structure up to modern code. Where you may get a FEMA variance around this sort of requirement in downtown Charleston, you are unlikely to get one on Folly Beach. In most cases a teardown is the easiest option - "grandfathering" is not guaranteed so heed the codes closely.
When all is completed, and the sun dips below the yard arm and ice clinks into that first gin and tonic, when the day goes quiet, then the heartbeat slows and Folly comes into its own. Then it all becomes worth it.
Note: The above are some, but by no means all, of the considerations around building on Folly Beach. It's important to start well and hire an architect who is experienced with building on the beach and especially on Folly. Hire a contractor with a record of building homes in the area and have a look at their work. If corners have been cut you will soon tell, the beach environment is very unforgiving of sloppy workmanship.
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