At the Southern Shores Town Council meeting on September 5, 2017, the Town Council adopted a new way of measuring height of homes in the Town. Before going into the changes to the height ordinance, it is important to understand the various ways height is measured.
Most beach municipalities that measure the height of a home start at a finished grade or average grade of the original topography of the lot. Other areas start measuring height at minimum base flood elevation as defined by FEMA.
So, what’s the difference?
Coastal areas and many inland areas, especially low lying areas, have flood maps that show a base flood elevation, which is a minimum requirement as to how high a home must be to be constructed in that particular zone.
Finished grade would be if a builder basically cleared and graded a lot to level out for a house pad. That means the measurement takes place from the flat area where the footprint of the house is located. This is usually the best way to measure height. It allows for a builder and owner to level out the house pad after removing any trees or growth that is in the way or could be threatening the new home. All while taking into account the septic system, possible wells, utilities, storm water retention areas, easements and right of ways. Once the pad is established, the height ordinance kicks in. The house is designed so that it meets the overall height restriction. It does not mean you can fill the lot to a higher elevation unless other associated ordinances allow you to do that.
Average grade of the original footprint is more difficult to plan around. The surveyor can take ground elevations and come up with an average grade within the footprint of the proposed house. That is your starting point. This also poses several problems. Once you start removing tree stumps and compacting the dirt or sand, your starting point can drop quite a bit. After you are into the clearing and grading you may run into cost overruns because you may need to haul in fill dirt or sand to get you back to that level. It’s not an exact science. So to establish a starting point before you do anything is very difficult and most times requires the builder, the owner, Town officials, and the surveyors to reevaluate and revise site plans as well as house plans to conform to the height restrictions. This can be several hundred to several thousand dollars.
About 17 to 18 years ago, the Southern Shores Planning Board and Town Council at that time, in an effort to make the houses smaller in town, adopted the most restrictive ordinance in measuring height than most other municipalities. That ordinance established a 26-foot top plate height restriction and an overall height restriction of 35 feet from the lowest original grade in the footprint of the proposed house. By starting at the lowest point of the house footprint meant different things for different lots depending on the topography. If the lot was flat you started measuring from there. Which meant on any size 3 story home you immediately starting digging a hole around the house to allow for storm water retention areas. If that lot was in a low area and needed fill for the septic system or fill to build up the house pad so you house did not flood, the builder, architect, owner etc. would need to reduce the number of stories on the house to allow for the extra fill.
If your lot was on a slope or incline, the builder is forced to clear more trees than necessary because there is no latitude to make minor adjustments as you go. More sand and dirt are hauled out just to level for the house pad. Even more is hauled out to dig storm water retention areas. Which means even more trees come down and more of the lot is disturbed just to build an average size home.
If your lot is bowl shaped with the hole in the middle, you have even more problems. This way of measuring height is completely contrary to how it should be done. At the beach you should build a little higher to allow for storm water and storm surge.
There have been several building changes recently that have made this way of measuring height even more difficult, requiring more removal of sand and dirt from a lot. The lumber span tables have changed requiring thicker floor systems. Old growth lumber is hard to come by and the new growth timber is not as strong as the old growth lumber. That means the floor system are requiring thicker lumber to span the same length. Other changes to the building code include increased thickness for more insulation around duct work. In many cases on longer floor spans, even in average size homes, require the builder, architect, or engineer to use floor trusses which are thicker. In Southern Shores, all of this meant that we dig even deeper to start our homes.
After much debate and deliberation at both the Planning Board meetings and the Town Council meeting, the Town has changed the way we measure the height of a home. The top plate restriction has been eliminated which will allow for a standard 3 story home to be built while not increasing the overall height of the house. The overall building height of 35 feet is now measured from the average grade of the 4 corners within the proposed footprint of the house. This will allow builders and owners to build a home without having to dig a hole first. This is positive news for everyone, builders, lot owners, future lot owners, existing residents, and the Town. Less sand will be hauled off lots, most likely less trees will be taken down, and we can mitigate our storm water better on individual lots.
I applaud the Town Council for the unanimous vote.