County Council adopts amended flood zone ordinance, with freeboard option


GEORGETOWN – By nearly two months, Sussex County beat the federal deadline clock with adoption of a flood zone ordinance amendment that adds no height to minimum building requirements but allows for optional freeboard.

Sussex County Council at its Jan. 20 meeting voted 4-1 to adopt the revised ordinance – as required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control – to maintain the County’s participation eligibility in FEMA’s flood insurance program.

The revised flood plain ordinance, introduced at Sussex County Council’s Nov. 18, allows for voluntary freeboard: the area above the required Base Flood Elevation, the point FEMA says at which the lowest floor of a structure in a flood zone can be built.

Last October, County Council unanimously supported staff recommendations calling for voluntary freeboard requirement, while recommending – but not mandating – up to two additional feet of building height above base flood elevation.

County Planning & Zoning Commission tendered unanimous recommended approval.

“I appreciate all of the time and effort, energy, hard work that you have all put into this,” said County Councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, in recognizing County staff and Assistant County Attorney Vince Robertson. “I believe it should be optional because in the end a landowner chooses to purchase a home and they do carry some risk with that decision. So, it is optional.”

“First, thank you for all of the work. I know it has not been an easy process in some cases,” said County Council President Michael Vincent, R-Seaford. “We are meeting what FEMA requires us to meet. And I do think that the person who builds their home should have the ability, if they choose, to make it higher than standard freeboard.”

Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Lewes, opposed adoption.

“The motion complies with basics that FEMA requires, so we don’t have any choice. But it’s more work for us if each individual homebuilder has to make those decisions – and it’s not mandatory,” said Ms. Deaver. “It’s more work for us. It’s hodge-podge … and I am not voting for it.”

Councilmen George Cole, R-Ocean View, and Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, supported ordinance adoption.

“I think that it is in compliance with FEMA regulations and their mandated requirements,” said Mr. Cole.

Ordinance adoption followed a public hearing that drew public comment.

Sussex County, along with all municipalities in the County, faced a mid-March deadline for adoption. That deadline coincides with FEMA’s timetable to update its Flood Insurance Rate Maps, establishing the various flood zones.

Non-compliance would jeopardize Sussex County property owners’ eligibility for participating in the federal flood insurance program.

Under the ordinance, the overall height of a structure/building would be increased up two feet, based on the amount of voluntary freeboard incorporated in the building.

As an example, a homeowner whose lowest floor is built one foot above BFE would be able to increase the overall height by one foot. Without the ordinance adjustment, since height is otherwise measured from BFE, a property owner would be penalized for adding freeboard on their own.

In a correspondence to County administration and Council, Mr. Robertson noted that flood provisions in County Code are very similar to this ordinance and there were not a lot of substantive changes to the requirements. “Instead, there is some clarity and detail that has been added, which will aid Sussex County’s administration of flood regulations,” wrote Mr. Robertson.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at

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