NORFOLK – A plan to help Norfolk stand up to sea level rise 50 years from now has led to a rift between City Hall and a local builders’ group that worries new rules will make it too expensive to construct new homes.
The City Council unanimously approved a total overhaul of the city’s zoning ordinance Tuesday night. It’s the first such rewrite since 1992 and has been in the works since 2014. It clocks in at a cool 881 pages.
The new law includes several steps to bolster the ability of new development to withstand rising tides and regular flooding. Before getting approval for new construction or major renovations, builders will have to accumulate a certain number of “points” by including flood-protection measures such as higher elevations, on-site stormwater treatment and alternative energy generation.
Several council members praised the new ordinance at a work session, saying they were happy to be taking bold steps to tackle the problems presented by the water that surrounds Norfolk and proud the city is on the cutting edge of addressing sea level rise.
“Norfolk is swallowing a giant resiliency pill right now. Instead of taking it as a slow approach, we’re taking it all at once,” Councilman Tommy Smigiel said. “I know there’s a sense of urgency … I don’t want to find out later that there’s bigger mistakes and I don’t want to lose development in the city when we need development.”
Smigiel was echoing concerns from the Tidewater Builders Association, a regional group of developers that argued in an open letter that all the new measures would add up to greater costs for builders – and possibly less development in Norfolk.
The list of complaints from TBA is long: that the hefty new code hasn’t been properly vetted and is too long for them to get through with a fine-toothed comb; that one-size-fits-all construction requirements will mean higher costs and less-functional buildings; that more extensive reviews will slow construction timelines.
All of those issues ultimately mean higher costs, the builders group argues. TBA estimated a new single-family home built in Norfolk under these rules could cost as much as $14,480 more than under the old zoning plan.
The city has acknowledged these new standards will mean some new costs for builders, but its estimates top out at $2,500 extra – about a sixth of what the builders claim.
“Resilience, like freedom, isn’t free. There are costs associated with being a resilient community,” planning director George Homewood told the council Tuesday.
Several council members rebuffed the complaints from TBA, both in their informal work session and the formal public meeting.
“The cost of the land may be going up and the cost of materials may be going up, but I’ll tell you what’s definitely going up: the level of water and the intensity of the storms,” Councilman Martin Thomas said during the work session. “That’s our job, to protect the future of the city, not protect the current developers.”
During public comment on the zoning ordinance, Bob Widener from TBA stood up to list the group’s concerns. He said members had been told that, once a draft had been made public in October ahead of a Planning Commission hearing, they might as well stop talking to city staff and take their complaints to planning commissioners or council members.