States and Communities Work to Coordinate Building Codes and Floodplain Management Ordinances
By Gregory Wilson, CFM, FEMA Building Science and Rebecca C. Quinn, CFM, RCQuinn Consulting, Inc.
(The original article was published by the ASFPM February 2012 newsletter.)
More than 21,600 communities now participate in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and many of those communities have enforced floodplain management (FPM) regulations for decades. Consequently, it’s not surprising that the responsibility for enforcement may be assigned to a variety of offices, including public works, planning and zoning, community development, or the building department.
Flood insurance agents can benefit by knowing what office is involved in enforcing floodplain-related building codes. This will allow agents to better assist their clients by knowing where to go for elevation information, finding out about flood insurance rate maps (FIRMs), and noticing changes to those maps."
Coordinating the enforcement of FPM with the community building codes
In recent years, many states and communities have moved towards coordinating the enforcement of building codes with local FPM regulations. “We have identified a number of benefits associated with using the building codes to regulate buildings in flood hazard areas,” observes John Ingargiola, Team Leader with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Building Science Branch.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit is having all the requirements that govern how buildings are designed in one place, the building code. Another is that routine inspections are conducted several times during construction by most building departments, which may not be standard practice in other departments. Building departments also have clear enforcement authority.
The current edition of the 2012 International Codes (I-Codes) and previous editions – going back to 2006 – include flood provisions that are consistent with the NFIP requirements for buildings and structures. Go to the Building Science FEMA page and click on “Building Code Resources” to download flood excerpts from the I-Codes and “Highlights of ASCE 24.”
The International Building Code Series (I-Codes)
The majority of states and territories adopt building codes based on the International Code Series, including the International Building Code, the International Residential Code, and the International Existing Building Code. Most states with statewide codes require their communities to enforce them; other communities may still adopt the codes, even if not required by their states. Very few states do not allow communities to adopt codes and a small number of states specify that only certain communities can do so.
“Of course,” says Ingargiola, “the main body of the building code only applies to buildings and structures, which means communities must have another mechanism to enforce NFIP-consistent requirements when people propose development activities other than buildings.”
"To ensure that all NFIP administrative requirements are satisfied, including those for development other than buildings," communities that enforce building codes based on the I-Codes have two options. They must either have a local ordinance or, if allowed by state law, adopt Appendix G of the International Building Code. Appendix G has administrative provisions and requirements for development that is not within the scope of the codes.
“FEMA worked with the International Code Council to develop Appendix G provisions that are consistent with the NFIP requirements,” says Ingargiola. If local ordinances are used, they should be coordinated with the codes to eliminate conflicts and avoid duplication. This has prompted some NFIP state coordinating agencies to work alongside their code commissions to bring about that coordination.
State enforcement of the I-Codes
The State of Florida A few years ago, the Florida Division of Emergency Management asked the Florida Building Commission to convene a working group to consider the merits of retaining the flood provisions of the I-Codes in the 2010 edition of the Florida codes. Not only did the Commission make that recommendation, it developed Florida-specific amendments. Prior to the 2010 edition, floodplain requirements were found only in local regulations.
Florida’s NFIP coordinator, Joy Duperault, estimates that building officials in about one-third of the state’s 459 NFIP communities also serve as the floodplain administrator. She notes that the “challenge is to encourage the floodplain administrators in the rest of the communities to coordinate with building officials to provide for this transition.”
“By law, the building code governs the design and construction of buildings and structures, which triggered a need to develop local FPM regulations that work with the code,” observes Duperault. After consultation with the Building Officials Association of Florida (BOAF) and FEMA, her office released a new model FPM ordinance specifically written to coordinate with the Florida Building Code (which does not include Appendix G).
Duperault not only coordinates with the Florida Building Commission staff, she regularly communicates with the leadership of the Florida Floodplain Managers Association and the BOAF. Both organizations provide training and host workshops, including sessions on the flood provisions of the codes and related topics.
(Readers can also see our article about Florida Code Enforcement in the June 2012 issue of the eWatermark.)
The State of Oregon In its 2007 report, the Oregon Flood/Building Code Standards Task Force recognized that coordinating the state’s model FPM ordinance not only with the NFIP, but with the state building code is important.
Christine Shirley, the Oregon NFIP coordinator, notes that floodplain managers and building officials (typically in different departments) should have been coordinating all along. But the state’s recent emphasis on flood provisions in the building codes has prompted greater effort. “Now the need to communicate feels like plowing new territory, with some rocks and stumps that nobody anticipated,” remarks Shirley. “Local floodplain managers typically are in planning departments,” says Shirley, noting that building departments are responsible for issuing permits for buildings after planning departments issue floodplain development permits. Floodplain development permits also are required for non-building development. “Planning departments check the flood hazard area and floodway boundaries, the base flood elevation, and the flood zone,” she says. “And if buildings are proposed in flood hazard areas, the building department enforces the flood provisions of the building code using the flood data checked by planning.”
When asked about the state’s role, Shirley emphasizes training: “When both building officials and floodplain managers attend the same training, they often figure out some requirements are falling through the cracks. One of the biggest problems is getting out the message that building officials need to send design certifications and final, as-built elevation certificates to the planning department.” Many building departments, she notes, purge permit records as soon as the retention period elapses, while the NFIP requires permanent retention.
Shirley’s office is working with communities to adopt the new Oregon model FPM ordinance that is coordinated with the building code (the state does not make Appendix G available for local adoption). The model encourages communities to remove requirements for buildings that cause duplication or conflict with the building code. It also has language for adoption of higher standards that affect the building design, such as additional freeboard above what is already required.
New York State In 2003, the New York State Division of Code Enforcement and Administration was given a very short time to adopt statewide building codes based on the 2003 I-Codes. That initial schedule made it a challenge to get comprehensive input from others, including the NFIP coordinator, Bill Nechamen. “We identified a few concerns that we worked out with the Division, notably how variances are handled,” says Nechamen, recalling the early years, and “because floodplain management criteria had not been explicitly covered in the previous edition of the NYS code, the Division’s staff had a lot to learn very quickly.”
“That effort paid off two years later, when my office submitted a code change proposal to add 2 feet of freeboard to the residential code,” says Nechamen. “The proposal was accepted based on our justification and economic analysis showing how the higher construction costs are balanced by lower damage and lower NFIP insurance premiums.” Nechamen observed that his office regularly calls the state’s code agency with questions about codes, and the Division routinely calls for clarification of floodplain issues. “That allows us to provide input that is consistent with the NFIP guidance and advice.”
“Having the flood provisions in the code has led to better enforcement of the NFIP requirements for buildings,” says Nechamen. He also notes that having consistent requirements statewide, as well as with other states, makes it easier for design professionals. Despite the benefits of statewide consistency, “with approval by the state Code Council, communities can adopt even higher standards if justified by locally unique conditions.” For example, because new flood maps for Long Island include the Limit of Moderate Wave Action that delineates the inland extent of the 1.5-ft breaking wave, Nechamen prepared sample language that communities can adopt to regulate Coastal A Zones as Zone V. “So far,” he reports, “every community that has requested this code change has been approved.”
“Right now, local FPM ordinances still include all requirements for buildings because some buildings are exempt from the code,” says Nechamen. “We help communities make adjustments to their ordinances to avoid conflicting with the building code.” Local FPM ordinances also are required because the state did not adopt the IBC Appendix G.
State modification of the I-Codes
A number of states have modified the flood provisions of the I-Codes, typically because the NFIP state coordinator works with the state agency or commission responsible for revising the codes every 3 to 6 years. A few examples:
Michigan amended the code to require additional elevation above the minimum requirements. One foot was added to the requirements of the residential code, and the building code was modified to require Type III and Type IV buildings (including essential and critical facilities) to be elevated or floodproofed to 1 foot above the 500-year flood level. In addition, “because much of the noncompliance we see is related to crawlspaces and below-grade spaces, we added clarification to those requirements,” reports Les Thomas, the Michigan NFIP coordinator.
Rhode Island NFIP coordinator Michelle Burnett points to a building code amendment that requires applications for variances to the flood provisions to be forwarded to her office. She also notes that “because the building code includes flood provisions, we revised the model FPM ordinance to eliminate as much duplication as possible.”
Maryland has not yet modified the flood provisions of its building codes, but state floodplain management staff expects it may happen in the future. With more than 4,500 miles of Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast shoreline, the Governor’s 2008 Commission on Climate Change recommended a review of the state’s building codes to develop enhanced requirements for coastal areas, including at least 2 feet of freeboard, to promote disaster-resistant construction. There’s also growing interest in planning for more extensive flood hazard areas as sea levels rise.
A number of NFIP state coordinators have remarked on improved compliance now that building codes include flood provisions. This benefit will likely grow as more states and communities work through the process to coordinate codes and FPM regulations.
At the national level, FEMA reports a strong positive trend in the number of jurisdictions adopting flood damage-resistant building codes. The number has grown to nearly 9,000, an increase of more than 100% since 2008, according to FEMA. “This trend, along with effective enforcement, will yield tremendous benefits in floodprone communities across the nation,” says James Walke, Risk Reduction Division Director at the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, at FEMA. “Disaster-resistant building codes help protect the economic tax base and enable communities to recover quicker after disasters.”
Greg Wilson, a former building official in coastal Mississippi, began work as a FEMA DAE after Hurricane Katrina and has been at FEMA National since 2007.
Rebecca Quinn, a former NFIP state coordinator for Maryland, has supported FEMA’s floodplain management and building code initiatives since 1998.
For more information
For information about Florida’s building code:
Visit Florida's building code page
For information about Oregon’s building code:
Visit the Oregon's building code document
2012 Edition of the I-Codes: visit Building Science page Click on “Building Code Resources” to download flood excerpts from the I-Codes and “Highlights of ASCE 24.”