News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, July 31, 2014
Stonington Selectmen move to challenge federal floodplain maps

by Rich Hewitt

Selectmen on Monday, July 28, took the first official step toward challenging the new federal floodplain maps.

The town is considering filing an appeal of the designations included in new FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps and will ask Robert Gerber, a senior engineer with Ransom Consulting Engineers in Portland who has worked with a number of Maine coastal towns seeking to appeal the maps, to prepare that appeal.

Town officials met recently with Gerber to review those maps and, according to Selectman Evelyn Duncan, he indicated that there were grounds for an appeal. Duncan said Gerber’s preliminary estimate for his work to prepare the appeal ranged between $20,000 and $30,000, an expenditure which would require voter approval.

FEMA has developed the new maps as part of its flood plain insurance program. The new maps use new technology to identify high risk flood zones throughout the country, base flood elevations and the risk of damage from wave and wind action. The maps indicate all high risk or VE zones and lower risk or AE zones along with the base elevations. Insurance rates are higher in the VE zones, and in some cases significantly higher.

In some cases, as in Stonington, areas that were once designated as low-risk zones, have been reclassified as high-risk based on the new maps.

Although the new maps affect the entire town, Gerber indicated that the costs to appeal the whole area would be prohibitive. He suggested focusing on three main areas where the new maps will have the most impact, according to Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris. Those areas, all of which have been designated as high-risk flood areas, are the downtown, Moose Island and the Burnt Cove area.

The board’s decision to move ahead with an appeal comes as the mapping process is entering a new phase. FEMA has been distributing and updating its new maps in Maine throughout the past year. According to Duncan, the agency has completed its work on the proposed maps for Stonington and has entered them into the Federal Register. Once FEMA has formalized the maps with an advertisement in a newspaper with local distribution, the town will have just 90 days to appeal the designation on those maps.

“At that point, the 90-day clicker starts,” she said. “If we don’t do something, we’re stuck with what we have.”

Duncan added that Gerber has indicated that there are areas for appeal and that some of the FEMA calculations for some areas in town may be faulty. Town officials have repeatedly questioned the re-designation of the downtown area, arguing that FEMA had neglected to take into account the islands that surround the town and reduce the impact of high waves.

Selectman Ben Barrows supported the move to hire Gerber, noting that the town did not have the time or expertise to prepare an appeal on its own.

“He’s done this with 20 towns,” Barrows said. “He knows the process.”

Town officials have been concerned about the potential impacts since FEMA issued its preliminary maps, and those impacts could be significant. Duncan noted that insurance rates for properties now included in the VE zones could increase by as much as 30 percent, although state officials have estimated the increases will be between 8 and 15 percent. The designation also could result in more stringent building requirements for properties in those zones which could impact the owners’ ability to build on or sell their property.

That could be a hidden result that would impact the entire town, according to Selectman Ben Barrows. He noted the ripple effect that could occur as resale values decline resulting in a decline in the local tax assessments and an erosion of the town’s tax base.

“Property taxes are the town’s main source of revenue,” he said. “That loss of revenue affects everybody in town; it hurts everybody.”

Barrows also expressed concern about the limited nature of the town’s appeal, noting that many properties affected by the new maps would not be covered by the town’s appeal. Judy Jenkins, the town’s code enforcement officer, said those property owners will still have the right to file a formal Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA) requesting their properties be removed from the floodplain. They will have to hire a surveyor and prove that their property does not sit in the flood plain, Jenkins said, but they will not be bound by the 90-day appeal limit that the town must comply with.

Billings-Pezaris will contact Gerber to get a firmer estimate on the cost of preparing an appeal. The selectmen will then have to seek approval from residents for the additional expenditure which has not been included in the town budget. Billings-Pezaris said there was time to call a special town meeting for that vote in time to file the appeal within the 90-day limit.

FEMA hopes to have all appeals settled so that the maps can become effective by July 2015.