Charleston is famous for its downtown historic homes and districts. About 100 years ago, very little attention was paid to flood risks, meaning many of the homes in what are now designated as AE Flood Zones (high risk areas in which base flood elevations have been determined) have their ground floor BELOW the current Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) base flood level. This is a problem we see on a weekly basis, but one that is not insurmountable for those wishing to renovate. The City of Charleston is very helpful to the concerned owner and provides copious advice when it comes to renovating historic homes below FEMA Flood Level.
Take for example a client project we have underway at 63 Radcliff Street. This is a small Charleston single from about 1880 in a downtown neighborhood. It needs substantial renovation with a cost greater than 50% of its value and therefore falls into the category requiring either lifting the home, or a "FEMA Variance" (more about this below), or a combination of both. The higher the building can be lifted the better BUT it must remain in keeping with the neighborhood. It is currently sitting at street level (which is considered "on grade"), however, due to settlement the rear of the building now is probably "below grade." We would not recommend it stay there. The two homes on either side are around 18 inches higher at ground floor level. We have decided to lift the building 36 inches and bring exterior siding down over the footings to make it match visually. This reduces flood insurance costs, protects it to some extent from potential flooding, and provides a useful crawl space without making the home look silly. To achieve this we need a FEMA Variance or a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) will never be issued on completion of the build.
“FEMA Variances” (advice from City of Charleston)
Federal law requires that any structure undergoing a renovation costing 50% or more of its value must comply with current floodplain requirements. The 50% figure is calculated from the cost of the building alone, not including the land, and is based on the assessed value from the Charleston County tax records unless a certified valuation from a licensed appraiser is provided.
Buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, either individually or as contributing buildings to a National Register Historic District (in our case Radcliffborough, see map), may receive an exemption from the floodplain regulations if they meet certain requirements.
To obtain permission to create a ground floor at any level below the Base Flood Level for the area, a variance must be granted by the Board of Appeals, which is administered through the Building Inspections Division in the Department of Public Service. The following is the process for requesting a variance:
Plans for the work must be approved by the Board of Architectural Review (BAR), or its staff (where applicable). Keep in mind, Staff level approval covers smaller alterations, or alterations already approved with qualifications at Board level, and is generally a faster process.
Submit an application form and fee for the Board of Appeals (BOA) to the Building Inspections Division.
Provide the Urban Design and Preservation Division with the BAR approved plans, including photographs of all four sides of the building showing it in context with neighboring structures.
City staff will forward the plans and photographs, along with a letter requesting certification of National Register status, to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). The SHPO will review the proposed work to ensure that it will not have an adverse effect on the building and if they agree, then the project will be eligible for exemption. If the City asks for exemption on your behalf then it is very likley to be granted by SHPO.
Once confirmed by SHPO, the variance request will be heard at the next available Board of Adjustment and Appeals meeting. Get through all that process and you will then be able to apply for a Building Permit and construction work can begin. Six months later you will be warm and cozy in your new (old) historic home in downtown Charleston.
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