News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, March 27, 2014
Federally updated floodplain maps raise concern for Stonington selectmen

by Rich Hewitt

Selectmen are anxious as they wait for the newest version of the federal floodplain insurance rate maps (FIRMs) due to be released later this month.

The new maps are revised versions of maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency under its Flood Plain Insurance Program that redefines flood risks in Maine and the rest of the nation. The first FIRMs were released in 2009 but were withdrawn after they created an uproar among coastal communities, which raised concerns about the impact of the newly defined flood zones on flood insurance costs and coastal development.

Despite the revisions, those concerns have not gone away.

The new maps generally expand the flood risk zones inland and also expand the high flood risk areas. In some cases, the maps have added new flood zones and in others, they upgrade existing flood zones from low flow to high flow. The federal flood insurance rates are based in part on those risk zones and the new maps are likely to require more property owners to purchase flood insurance and to increase rates for some homeowners who already have flood insurance. The changes will particularly affect property owners who have a mortgage on their property in those risk zones.

Although Congress, in response to outcries from states along the southeast coast over high flood insurance premiums, recently voted to delay implementation of the new rates for four years, local officials throughout Maine are concerned that the rates will go sky high.

Selectman Evelyn Duncan and Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris, along with the town’s planning board chairman and code enforcement officer, recently attended an informational meeting regarding the new maps. Duncan said that, despite the delay in the new rates, the town needs to be prepared to respond to the information that is included in the new maps.

“This is not going away,” said Duncan.

“If you’re in a prime flood zone, you’re going to be required to have flood insurance; you’re going to have to have it,” she said. “So it’s critical what those maps look like.”

Billings-Pezaris related horror stories of flood insurance that cost in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars for premiums.

There are other anticipated impacts from the new maps that could cost towns and homeowners. Individuals can appeal the designation of their property, according to Code Enforcement Officer Judy Jenkins.

“You have to have your own engineer and surveyor and then prove to FEMA that you are not in the flood plain,” Jenkins said. “That’s not cheap. And I don’t know of anybody recently who’s challenged the federal government and won.”

On the other hand, if you can prove that you’re not in the high risk zones, that could save you a lot of money down the road in flood insurance, she said.

The other option is for the town to collectively challenge all of the areas where there is a question as to whether the properties are actually in flood plains. That still will involve engineers and surveyors, Jenkins said.

Town officials have seen preliminary versions of the proposed maps and, according to Jenkins, there are quite a few areas around the town that would be added to the flood plain if the maps go into effect unchallenged.

But, Duncan echoed Jenkins’ caution that the burden of proof lies with the town or the homeowner.

“The property owner has to prove that they are in zones that are not going to flood,” she said.

The new maps also could result in stricter building requirements in flood risk zones, which could translate into higher building costs. Some officials fear those additional costs could dampen both commercial and residential development in those areas.

“Nobody’s going to build if they have to pay that kind of money,” Billings-Pezaris said.

Some of the affected areas are located in protected coves along the town shores, where it does not seem likely that they would feel the effects of wind and waves enough to cause flooding.

The designation of flood risk areas is based on statistical information such as data for river flow, storm tides, hydrological/hydraulic analyses, and rainfall and topographical surveys, according to the FEMA website, which notes that the agency uses the best available technical data to create the maps that outline the different flood risks in each community.

According to Billings-Pezaris, the new FIRMs also factor in maximum wave heights in assessing flood danger, as opposed to the average wave heights under the old maps. It’s a different model than has been used in the past, she said. The current floodplain maps were created in the 1970s and, in some cases, according to FEMA, were based on information gathered decades before that.

Although some town roads, particularly in the Burnt Cove area, have flooded in the past and the town has received some emergency funding from the federal government, Jenkins said the effects from storms have never been on the scale of other areas in the county, such as the Gulf Coast and the southeastern coast, that regularly flood during stormy seasons.

Several selectmen expressed concern that FEMA had developed a “one-size-fits-all” system that treats low risk areas such as Stonington in the same way as high-risk areas. Chris Betts asked whether the federal models take into consideration the fact that the town is surrounded by islands that break up the high wave action.

While it appeared clear that the town will definitely be affected by the new maps, Selectman Ben Barrows questioned what could be done on the local level to ease the pain.

Both Billings-Pezaris and Duncan indicated that the town will need to become proactive if it hopes to counter the new zones, although they noted that they could not do much until the new maps arrive.

Creating awareness among property owners in town will be a key component, Duncan said, and she suggested the selectmen work with the town’s planning board to schedule a public hearing to discuss the maps and the criteria used to create them.

If the maps do create undue hardships or contain what the town believes is faulty information, the selectmen would have to begin the appeal process almost immediately once they receive them. There is a 90-day window to file the appeal.

According to Jenkins, the strong objections from Maine towns that already have received their new FIRMs has slowed the delivery of maps to the Downeast towns. Stonington initially had been scheduled to receive its maps by the end of this month. But, because of the delays, it could be April or May before they arrive.

The delays in delivery also could affect the date when those new flood zones will become effective. The original effective day was to be in 2015. Depending on the number of appeals, FEMA may have to put off that date until the challenges can be resolved.