Columbia City Council made tentative changes in city laws Monday that would suspend building-permit fees for six months, business-license fees for three months and keep some property owners from having to meet tougher building codes.
The moves all were in response to last month’s floods.
Council voted unanimously for the changes despite calls to go slower from some residents and business owners, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency specialist leading the count of affected properties.
Tim Russo, a FEMA floodplain manager and insurance specialist, advised council to wait until FEMA and city officials have a precise count of affected properties before eliminating the city law that requires repairs and improvements made during the past five years be used to determine how much of a reconstruction must meet tougher building codes. Eliminating the “substantial improvements” law would make rebuilding cheaper.
Ali Khan, the city official working with FEMA, told The State newspaper the number of affected properties will be released by Wednesday or Thursday. Kahn would not estimate Monday what that number might be.
Before council voted, Russo said, “My opinion would be to wait ... and see how many people this is going to effect.” This is the first time, Russo said, he has seen a council move to drop “substantial improvements” language from its ordinance, though he has heard of it happening.
Lisa S. Jones, who works with Carolina Flood Solutions, as well as resident Mary Bagwell, suggested council pause before making the change because it could hurt some property owners.
However, Mayor Steve Benjamin said council can change the language again before the proposals get final approval, scheduled for the Nov. 10.
“The purpose is to not have homeowners penalized who made improvements prior to the flood,” Benjamin said.
Describing the changes to three city laws that council adopted in principle Monday, Benjamin said the idea is to make Columbia’s laws “as favorable to homeowners and businesses as possible.”
Lexington County Council last week waived permit fees for rebuilding damaged homes in flood-plain areas, a step that could benefit up to an estimated 400 homeowners. The fee waiver has no time limit in Lexington County.
In other flood-recovery action Monday, City Council also voted to:
▪ Waive building-permit and plan-review fees for six months. Homeowners and business owners still must produce receipts that their property is flood damaged. Also, the city’s Building Division must inspect the structures.
▪ Waive the usual fees charged any flood-repair contractor who has or applies for a business license fee within the next 90 days. However, contractors must meet the usual requirements for a business license and be licensed by the state.
How much the moves will cost the city in lost revenue was not released at Monday’s meeting.
Some city staffer have worried that lifting too many restrictions might make it easier for construction scammers to take advantage of already injured property owners.
Staff Writer Tim Flach contributed. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.
Participating in City Council when members absent
A unanimous council agreed Monday to allow its members to participate electronically in any meeting open to the public. But any member not physically present at the meeting will not be allowed to cast votes. Also, their participation will not count toward a quorum.
▪ Participation may be by phone, Internet, satellite where the member can be heard or seen. Texts, emails or web chats where the member cannot be heard are insufficient to take part.
▪ The change in rules came after a city resident questioned whether city law allowed council members to participate from afar. The issue grew tense Sept. 15 after Councilwoman Leona Plaugh was banned from a meeting while she was recuperating from cancer treatment.