A new requirement to build structures 18 inches higher off the ground than the federal flood elevation could help reduce insurance costs and flood risk, but has frustrated some contractors who argue it makes building on the island more expensive.
The city in May began enforcing a “freeboard requirement,” an ordinance mandating that new construction be 18 inches above the base flood elevation.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency manages the National Flood Insurance Program, the primary flood insurer for homeowners, and recommends cities adopt freeboard requirements, Director of Development Services Tim Tietjens said.
Other cities that had adopted freeboard requirements set them between 1 foot and 2 feet above the base elevation level, which varies depending on where you are on the island, he said.
The base flood elevation — the computed elevation to which floodwaters are anticipated to rise during a 100-year flood event — varies from about 11 feet to more than 15 feet on the island.
The new requirements are among things that could improve the city’s community rating score with the National Flood Insurance Program and reduce flood insurance costs across the board on the island by 5 percent, Tietjens said. Galveston’s rating is currently in Class 7, but could soon be improved to a Class 6, he said.
The city gets points for different flood mitigation efforts, which, combined, make up a community rating. People insured in flood zones on the island already receive a 15 percent deduction in their flood insurance premium rates, he said. If the city gets an improved rating from different changes it has made, including the freeboard mandate for new construction, the premium rates could fall even more.
Flood insurance premiums already are in the thousands of dollars a year for many homeowners and most insured commercial property owners, and some observers worry about increases as the federal flood program struggles with debt.
“It’s extremely wise for homeowners and prudent for a city to mandate it,” Tietjens said.
By 2020, the agency will likely require the 18-inch freeboard requirement as a minimum standard for new construction, he said.
But at least one builder said he wished the city had held off on adopting the new requirements. The new requirements have been a frustration for builders, especially on commercial properties, because of the added costs in materials and labor, Al Fichera of Fichera Builders Inc. said.
“We already are at pretty high extremes,” Fichera said. “Most cities only build 12 inches higher than the center of the street. Galveston is not like that.”
“Eighteen inches might not sound like a lot, but if it’s commercial, that’s adding 18 feet to a handicap ramp and adds three steps to the building.”
He estimated the new requirements added about $10,000 in construction costs for the homes his company builds, he said.
“It costs more and the labor is more,” Fichera said. “These are all things that make everything more expensive. It’s not deterring construction, it just costs more.”
Before adopting the ordinance, city staff met with FEMA staff and researched what it would mean for the cost of building on the island, Tietjens said.
A 2017 study produced by floodplain managers found the additional costs for building a 2,000-square-foot house were about $4,200, Tietjens said. The study found the additional costs were recouped in about 3.2 years from deductions in insurance premiums from building higher, he said.
The costs likely would go up, but the code update produced more benefits than harm, Walter Premirelli of Premrl Construction Builders said. The new requirements would make homes more resilient during storms and help with the cost of flood insurance premiums, he said.
“It’s a very minimum investment you have to do,” Premirelli said. “There are more benefits than costs.”