Counties in Maryland and Virginia Vary on Building Restrictions in Flood Zones

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When Kyle and Lynn Tanger prepared to buy a waterfront property off the Chesapeake Bay a few years ago, they knew it would need extensive renovations.

But the Alexandria couple soon discovered the Cambridge, Maryland. home had an even bigger problem: flooding, and not just from hurricanes.

“There's wonderful things to like about the water, but too much water is not something we look forward to,” Kyle Tanger said.

So when Dorchester County told them they had to elevate the cottage during renovations because it’s in a flood zone, the Tangers decided to go even higher than what's required. That’s because Tanger, a sustainability consultant, said he isn't just worried about routine flooding, but what will happen down the road from climate change. 

“I don't think there's a debate about climate change. The debate really is how big of an extent of trouble are we going to get from it,” he said.

The Tangers are among the Marylanders and Virginians who have renovated or built new properties in coastal flood zones in recent years. But when it comes to building requirements in those at-risk areas, the News4 I-Team found little common ground.

Under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program, the federal government sets minimum height requirements for properties built or extensively renovated in tidal flood zones. Those requirements, however, are based on maps that assess current flooding risk. 

In states such as Maryland and Virginia, it’s up to local governments whether to impose tougher building standards — such as added elevation, called freeboard — to account for future flooding from rising seas.

The I-Team found those additional elevation requirements vary among counties and even municipalities. A survey of more than two dozen coastal counties and towns in Maryland and Virginia found most required at least 2 feet of additional elevation. Some, such as York County, Virginia, or Ocean City, Maryland, go as high as 3 feet. A few, such as oceanfront Worcester County, Maryland, require no additional feet.

A FEMA spokesperson told News4 that while the agency encourages communities that participate in the National Flood Insurance Program to have additional freeboard requirements and offers incentives to those that do, it cannot force them to do so without an act of Congress. 

“It all comes down to what your local government is willing to adopt,” said Brian Soper, an environmental planner with Dorchester County.

Exceeding federal minimums can help lower a community’s flood insurance rate, he said, and homeowners who elect to go even further could also potentially see a premium reduction.

That savings “can be a seller to the right person” who is on the fence about how high to build, he said.

Dorchester approved a 2-foot freeboard requirement in 2011, but only after what several people told News4 was a bitter political fight that spanned decades

Many local government officials are hesitant to impose additional building requirements on their residents, several experts told News4, due to fear it could discourage development and affect their tax base to concerns it could harm their re-election chances.

“Nobody likes to have that kind of regulation imposed upon them,” said Joe Fehrer, the coastal communities project manager with Maryland/DC chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “But by the same token, government, by its nature, is charged with protecting its citizenry.”

The problem is especially acute along Maryland and Virginia coasts, where scientists say the sea level is not only rising, the land is sinking. 

A 2019 report from the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy found sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay region is “double the global average” of a half foot in the past century, “due to the additional effect of land subsidence.”

And a 2017 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that, by 2035, "between 20 and 25 communities in Maryland will be chronically inundated" by flooding because of sea level rise and sinking land.” Those communities include Crisfield, in Somerset County, which the nonprofit predicts could experience flooding more than 26 times a year by then.

Meanwhile, the building continues. In unincorporated Worcester County, for example, records show more than 130 building permits were issued for new homes in flood zones between 2016 and 2019. Ocean City, the famed resort town in Worcester, issued nearly 70 new construction permits in the same time frame. 

The properties join the nearly 30,000 existing homes in Maryland and 34,000 existing homes in Virginia that face significant flooding risk by 2050, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Climate Central and real estate website Zillow. 

Fehrer said allowing people to build in flood zones without tougher, forward-thinking measures is “a failure on county government's part because you're putting people in harm's way.”

But some say it’s not necessary to exceed what the federal government already requires of communities that participate in the flood insurance program.

Joseph Metrecic, who is president of the Worcester Board of County Commissioners and also an Ocean City homebuilder, said it should be up to homeowners whether to exceed federal standards. After all, it’s their property. 

“It’s the homeowners responsibility to do his or her due diligence and to decide where they want that house to be built and how high,” he said, adding: “As long as it's not infringing upon the neighborhood, we kind of want people to be able to build what they want to build.” 

He said the commission hasn’t been asked to consider imposing additional freeboard requirements in his five years on the board, but indicated it could be a tough sell.

The county is already losing development to neighboring Delaware, he said, because of Maryland’s requirement that new homes have costly sprinkler systems. At the same time, he acknowledged that the cost of adding freeboard during new construction is far cheaper than installing a sprinkler system or elevating an existing home.

According to FEMA, the up-front costs for each foot of freeboard range from 0.25 to 1.5 percent of total construction costs. 

Still, “the commissioners for the most part are very small government-minded,” Metrecic said. “As far as somebody building their own home, that's their decision.”

Terry Phillips, of Yorktown, Virginia, said he wishes tougher building standards had been in place when he built his house four decades ago. 

His property, located off the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, has flooded multiple times. FEMA has twice paid about $100,000 to repair it, he said, before finally paying more than a half million through a grant to elevate his home several feet.

"Had I known when I built this home what I know now, it would never have been flooded,” he told News4, explaining he would have built the structure higher from the beginning.

Elizabeth Andrews, who directs the Virginia Coastal Policy Center and advises state and local governments on these issues, says lawmakers are in a tough spot. 

"A lot of times it's easy to point fingers at localities and say: ‘Why are you allowing development in your coastal areas when you know it floods?’ But we're not providing them with alternative tools they need to do anything else at the moment," she said. 

Most local governments can’t afford expensive buyout programs or to fund elevating existing homes in flood zones, she said.

“It’s going to take some very tough decision making at the state level,” she said. “We're going to have to make some tough calls because it's not endless money out there and we're going to have to decide at the state level what are we going to fund to save, as well.” 

She called additional elevation requirements a “short-term” solution, because even if people are required to raise their homes, she says, communities could still eventually be stranded by flooded roads and public utilities. She predicts that’s when more people will start taking the risk of sea level rise more seriously.

“It's really going to be who's left holding the bag with the big home that they purchased that they can't get nearly the same amount of money for because their septic can't perk, or they can't access it because their road is flooded so much of the year,” she said. 

That’s why Kyle Tanger, the sustainability consultant from Alexandria, said his family is enjoying their Cambridge getaway for as long as they can.

"I would love for my children to be able to inherit it. I would love for my children's children to be able to inherit it,” he said, adding: “I don't know if that's possible here.”

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot by Jeff Piper and Evan Carr.

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