To prepare Bluffton for a swift recovery should a hurricane strike, Town Council adopted a new emergency construction process Tuesday that officials call a "major step forward" in allowing residents to rebuild quickly.
The emergency permitting ordinance says the "community's survival will depend on the ability of all property owners to repair, reconstruct or rebuild and become operational as quickly as possible."
Among council members attending the meeting, the ordinance passed unanimously. Allyne Mitchell did not attend due to a family illness.
The ordinance streamlines the town's review and permitting process for rebuilding structures damaged by natural disasters.
Instead of requiring property owners to obtain permits for rebuilding, the ordinance allows repairs outside the town's Historic Preservation Overlay District to proceed without approval from the planning department as long as structures are repaired to the exact condition that existed before the disaster.
"It will provide faster relief for businesses and residents," town planner Katie Woodruff wrote Tuesday in a memo to council.
The first step required in the ordinance is for town staff to assess the safety of all structures after a disaster. Damage assessment volunteers made up of local contractors, architects and engineers trained by Frank Hodge, the town's building official, will conduct the safety inspections following a hurricane. They will then post color-coded placards on each building indicating the level of safety.
Green would indicate structures are safe to occupy.
Yellow would indicate limited entry and restricted use.
Red would indicate the building is unsafe to occupy.
While major damage would require a permit, any structure outside the historic district that's safe to occupy could be repaired without prior approval. The work must be consistent with state and local construction codes and be completed within 18 months, according to the ordinance.
Buildings inside the district and any structure with a yellow or red placard would require administrative approval for external repairs and rebuilding, according to the ordinance.
Those property owners must apply for an emergency construction building permit.
The application must include copies of approved plans and the building elevation drawings originally approved or pre-disaster photos showing all sides of each structure to be repaired or rebuilt. The application also must include a notarized affidavit stating all structures are being built to the state that existed before the disaster.
To expedite the process, the town's Historical Preservation Commission will meet at least biweekly after the mayor announces the town will begin receiving such applications, according to the ordinance.
In a hurricane preparedness update to council Tuesday, deputy town manager Tim Bennett said Bluffton is "much more prepared now than it was two years ago."
In addition to the new ordinance, Bennett said the town has contracted with Beaufort County to clear and remove debris in the event of a hurricane. It also has contracted with private companies to supply office trailers, generators, portable showers and kitchens should the town need them.
"Our county has not been tested, but I believe if tested we'll stand up well," he said.