Zoning Amendments Relative to Coastal Community Building Height, Character and Resiliency

On February 25, 2019, the Town Council enacted amendments to the Zoning Ordinance relative to coastal community building height, character and resiliency.   The amendments propose the creation of two (2) Overlay Districts - the Coastal Resiliency Overlay District, and the Special Flood Hazard Overlay District - and the adoption of related language and standards.

To view the enacted Zoning Ordinance text, please click here.

To view the locations of the Overlay Districts relative to your property enter your address in the search bar within the map below, or click here.

(click the >> in the upper left corner of the map to view the legend)

Legislative Changes as Impetus for Amendments

During the 2018 Rhode Island Legislative Session, a bill was enacted that amended the definition of building height within the Zoning Enabling Act, as follows:

(12) Building Height. For a vacant parcel of land, building height shall be measured from the average, existing-grade elevation where the foundation of the structure is proposed. For an existing structure, building height shall be measured from average grade taken from the outermost four (4) corners of the existing foundation. In all cases, building height shall be measured to the top of the highest point of the existing or proposed roof or structure. This distance shall exclude spires, chimneys, flag poles, and the like. For any property or structure located in a special flood hazard area, as shown on the official FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs), building height shall be measured from base flood elevation, and where freeboard, as defined in this section, is being utilized or proposed, such freeboard area, not to exceed five feet (5'), shall be excluded from the building height calculation; provided, however that the Rhode Island coastal resources management council design elevation maps may be used by an owner or applicant to establish a base flood elevation for a property that is higher than the official FEMA FIRMs.

The new definition took effect as of March 1, 2019.  

Impacts of New Building Height Definition

In practical application, the new definition would change the overall building height allowed within Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs), also known as “flood zones.”  Within the SFHAs, building height will no longer be measured from average existing grade, as it is measured elsewhere, but from Base Flood Elevation (BFE) or BFE plus freeboard. Measuring building height from BFE, rather than from grade, has the effect of creating much taller buildings.  In all of South Kingstown’s residential zones, current maximum building height is 35-feet.  Currently, structures within SFHAs are required to accommodate the elevated space required by FEMA and all living space within the maximum building height of 35-feet.  The new building height definition applies the maximum building height figure (35-feet) only to the living space, meaning that buildings are allowed to be much taller.

See an example of the changing building height measurement, here.

Furthermore, building permit applicants will be able to choose whether they use the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) to set the BFE, or whether they want to utilize one of the Coastal Resources Management Council’s (CRMC) Design Elevation Maps to establish BFE.  Allowing the use of CRMC’s Design Elevation Maps further complicates building height measurement.  Each CRMC Design Elevation Map depicts a specific level of anticipated sea level rise and provides recommended design flood elevations for structures.  The CRMC Maps have recalculated flood zone areas and potential water depth from storm surge, given various sea level rise scenarios.  Utilization of CRMC’s Design Elevation Maps is intended to increase the ability of a structure to withstand future storm surge conditions, therefore increasing coastal resiliency and further protecting public health and safety.  However, in many cases, the design flood elevations depicted on CRMC’s Maps are much higher than the BFE required by FEMA. 

See an example of the impacts of using the CRMC Design Elevation Maps, here.

Summary of Zoning Ordinance Amendments

The Zoning Ordinance amendments recommended by the Planning Board are intended to:

  • Address the problem posed by the new definition of building height;
  • Maintain South Kingstown’s coastal community character to the extent possible; and
  • Promote resilient development.

While the Planning Board acknowledged the importance of addressing the potentially excessive height of coastal buildings, the Board recognized that the character of South Kingstown’s coastal neighborhoods is changing, simply due to the fact that new construction will be required by FEMA and the State Building Code to be elevated.   Therefore, the draft amendments not only bring building height down, as depicted in both Exhibits, but also adopt form and massing standards for coastal structures that are intended to reduce the visual impact of elevated structures on the neighborhood. 

The amendments create two overlay districts, which lie on top of the underlying zoning district: the Coastal Resiliency (CR) Overlay District and the Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) Overlay District. 

The CR Overlay District encompasses the area which is anticipated to be within a flood zone given 5-feet of sea level rise.  The CR Overlay District is educational only, intended simply to alert property owners to potential future conditions, and no construction or performance standards apply to properties within this District.   Building permit applicants will be required to obtain a statement of future conditions from the Planning Department prior to issuance of a building permit, and the statement will be recorded in the Town’s Land Evidence Records, so that future property owners will be made aware of the information.

The SFHA Overlay District intends to limit excessive building height while addressing community character and overall resiliency.  Two different maximum building heights are proposed, being 25-feet for structures elevated 10-feet or less above grade and 18-feet for structures elevated 11-feet or more above grade.  Standards for increased side yard setbacks, maximum floor area, maximum deck size, minimum roof pitch, and facade articulation are proposed for all buildings within the SFHA, except those within the Commercial Downtown (CD), Commercial Waterfront (CW), and Indistrial-1, -2, and -3 (IND-1, IND-2, and IND-3) zoning districts.

See an example of the new building height definitions, applied when a
FEMA FIRM is used to establish BFE, here.

See an example of the new building height definitions, applied when a
CRMC Design Flood Elevation Map is used to establish BFE, here.

The SFHA Overlay District also addresses use of the CRMC Design Elevation Maps to establish Base Flood Elevation (BFE).  The Board felt it critical to ensure that structures were not only elevated to accommodate future sea level rise, but that property owners also consider the other impacts of sea level rise, such as land inundation, maintained physical access to the property, and the ability to provide wastewater treatment and potable water.  Furthermore, since the CRMC Design Elevation Maps indicate new flood zones given anticipated sea level rise, the Board felt it important that when a CRMC Map was used to establish BFE, the construction methods required by the State Building Code for the anticipated flood zone were utilized.  To ensure that all of these factors are considered, the Board proposes a Special Use Permit process for applicants seeking to utilize a CRMC Map to establish BFE.

To limit confusion, the SFHA Overlay District replaces the High Flood Danger (HFD) Overlay District, which lies completely within the area proposed to contain the SFHA District.  Where necessary, the standards from the HFD District have been incorporated into the SFHA District.