Originally published in Compass, June 26, 2014
New flood maps bear watching, say local officials
by Rich Hewitt
The federal flood plain mapping process is moving closer to the appeals phase of the process, and municipalities in the region and around the state are studying the new maps in an effort to determine how they should proceed.
Meanwhile, local and state officials are urging property owners to pay attention to the newly drawn maps, which could change their flood risk designation, resulting in new requirements for flood insurance and higher premiums for properties currently covered by flood insurance.
The state of Maine currently has about 8,600 miles of flood plains and there are more than 9,000 flood insurance policies in effect in Maine with coverage totaling over $1.9 billion, according to information from the state website. The National Flood Insurance Program provides the only affordable flood insurance for those properties in the flood plain in towns that have adopted the program’s land use management criteria. About 95 percent of Maine’s towns and unorganized territories currently participate in the NFIP.
The program requires that any building with a federally backed mortgage carry flood insurance, and almost all banks also have that requirement even though it’s not mandated by the federal government.
“It’s not mandated, but all banks are requiring flood insurance,” said Judy Jenkins, a code enforcement officer in Blue Hill, Brooklin, Penobscot and Stonington. “No bank is going to expose themselves to that kind of risk.”
Jenkins stressed that the requirement for flood insurance applies only to homes with a mortgage. If you own your home outright, there is no requirement for the insurance.
The remapping process
FEMA’s remapping process was designed to update the flood plain maps last redrawn in 1988. The Federal Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) created from that process have generated much concern since FEMA began unveiling them in southern coastal states. The concerns have moved northward into New England as the agency provided maps to new areas, including Maine where most coastal towns have received their preliminary maps. Much of the concern has been driven by misinformation and by a new federal law enacted as the first maps were being issued, according to Sue Baker, the coordinator of the National Floodplain Insurance Program in Maine.
“They were two different things,” Baker said last week. “They just happened in tandem.”
The Biggert-Waters Act of 2012 removed most of the subsidies that had bolstered the flood plain insurance program since it was established in 1968. That resulted in astronomical flood insurance premiums, some as high as $20,000 to $30,000 a year, according to Baker. News of those high rates spread like wildfire, fueling the rising concern about the flood plain maps, and reaction from coastal states spurred Congressional action to ease the impact of that law. The Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014 repealed sections of the Biggert-Waters Act, restoring many, but not all, of those subsidies, Baker said. The new legislation even provided refunds for some property owners hit by the high insurance premiums.
That’s not to say that there won’t be increases in flood plain insurance; there will be, although the rate any individual property owner will pay will depend on a number of factors including the age of the home and the type of construction. And some of those increased premiums for communities and individuals will be driven by the flood risks outlined on the new maps.
Those maps were developed using new technology and provide better topographical data than in the past, Baker said. The maps currently in use used contour lines of between 10 and 20 feet.
“The new maps have two-foot contour lines all along the coast and throughout coastal communities,” she said. “They delineate the flood hazard boundaries more accurately.”
That accuracy will be a benefit to towns beyond the direct impact on the flood plain, Baker said. The detailed maps will aid towns in a variety of land use efforts and, because they are digital, they can be used with other digitalized maps such as tax maps and shoreland zoning maps.
In addition to the new topography, the FIRMs establish risk zones—rated low to high—as well as base elevations and the risk of damage from wave and wind action. Properties in the V zones are at high risk from wind or waves, while those in A zones, those inland from the V zones and properties located along lakes, rivers and streams, are at lower risk.
Insurance rates will be higher in the V zones, where the risk for flood damage is highest.
The base flood elevations also determine how high above the base flood level a new or substantially improved building needs to be.
Federal regulations require that the lowest floor of a building in the flood plain be built at the base flood elevation. Maine is more restrictive and requires construction be done at one foot above that level, Baker said. Some communities have adopted stricter height regulations.
That’s significant, Baker said, because the flood insurance rates are based on a combination of the different risk levels. Property owners in the flood plain can reduce those premiums by building above the minimum height level.
“For every foot above the base flood level you lower your flood insurance premium,” she said. “And the first three feet are significant.”
Property owners should review the maps
Baker urged coastal property owners to take the time to review the maps to see where they fall in relation to the flood plain. If it appears that they will move into the flood plain, she suggested that they voluntarily purchase flood insurance now. By doing that, she said, they will be able to preserve the best rate for as long as possible.
Baker explained that if a property is newly mapped as being in the flood zone and there is a mortgage or federally backed financing, lenders will require flood insurance.
“If you voluntarily purchase flood insurance before the new maps go into effect, you will be allowed to buy at the preferred risk policy rates,” she said. “Your rates will still go up, but you will be grandfathered out of the flood hazard area.”
That’s important because lenders likely will not notify property owners that they need flood insurance until after the new maps become effective. At that point, Baker said, they will be locked into the new, higher rates.
Although the flood insurance rates will vary depending on a variety of factors, Baker said they expect rates to increase between 5 and 18 percent for most property owners.
The maps generally expand the flood plain boundaries inland. But, the more accurate technology used to determine elevations also plays a part in determining the flood plain. As a result, while many properties currently in the flood plain will remain there, some properties will move into the flood plain, while others will move out of it. Likewise, some located in the high risk V zone could move to the lower risk zone, and vice versa.
That process is evident in two area towns: Deer Isle and Stonington.
According to Jeremy Stewart, chairman of the Deer Isle Planning Board, the downtown area of the town currently falls within the flood plain.
“The new maps,” he said, “show that it’s not. The downtown is 20 feet above the flood plain.”
The impact of the new maps, however, is just the opposite in Stonington. According to Judy Jenkins, the code enforcement officer in Stonington, that downtown area has been in the flood plain, but rated in the A or low risk zone for wind and wave damage.
The new maps, Jenkins said, put the entire downtown area of Stonington in the high risk V zone. That designation has raised concerns among town officials about how that new designation will impact not only flood insurance rates, but how it will affect economic development and the ability of property owners to sell and build on property in that zone.
Jenkins said the new designation is questionable.
“It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “They don’t seem to have taken into account all those little islands out there that act as a buffer during a storm surge.”
Towns have the opportunity to appeal the designations on the new maps. The towns will have 90 days to appeal flood hazard designations and the clock starts ticking as soon as they receive formal written notice from FEMA that the maps are complete.
Stonington, like many other coastal towns, has already hired an engineer to review the preliminary maps to determine if they are accurate. At an informational meeting June 12, more than 40 people turned out to learn more about the mapping process and its effect on their property.
“That’s a lot for us,” said Kathleen Billings-Pezaris, the Stonington town manager. She said a lot of people there agreed that this is a community-wide issue and not just restricted to the residents in the flood plain.
“It is a community trickle-down effect we will feel out of this in all industries that are tied to shore-side properties or infrastructure, and new potential building code requirements for building on stilts, blow-out doors, etc.,” she said.
Although Baker said the flood plain building standards have not changed based on the new maps, properties that have been moved into flood hazard zones as a result of the new maps will be subject to those requirements.
In Deer Isle, the planning board has been regularly reviewing the preliminary maps, although attendance at several informational meetings has been light.
Although the initial impression is that the impact on the town will be spotty, Stewart said the town has hired Due North, a local surveying company, to do an analysis of the changes and to identify the buildings that will be in the flood plain that were not in it before.
The maps can be difficult to work with, according to Jenkins, and FEMA has included a DVD with all the maps on it.
Deer Isle creates DVD for resident use
According to Stewart, in an effort to make it easier for residents to look at and understand the maps, the board has created a disc that includes only the maps for Deer Isle and Stonington, along with an index to help locate specific maps.
“They’ll be able to look at a map of Deer Isle and see what map their property falls in,” Stewart said. “On that same DVD, they’ll be able to pull up that specific map and they’ll be able to see their structure and where it falls in the flood plain.”
Those discs are on sale at the Deer Isle town office. The board also plans to have a dedicated computer at the town office where residents can view the disc.
Baker said FEMA hopes to have the appeals process completed so that the maps can become effective by July 2015. Stewart noted that for that to happen, the process has to be done in time for towns to hold public hearings on the maps and the ordinances that go with them so they can be presented at the annual town meeting next spring.