2017-08-04 / Front Page

Towns appeal FEMA flood maps

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — In it’s third try at bat in the past five years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is once again getting significant pushback from coastal towns on updates to its area flood maps.

FEMA issued its first preliminary flood map updates in 2010, predicting which areas in York and Cumberland counties could be most impacted by a so-called 100-year storm.

Those risk maps attempted to update information not assessed since the 1980s when data was created using less sophisticated technology than is available today. Those maps are important because not just because they help state and municipal officials manage land use regulations. They also are a main determining factor in rates set by the National Flood Insurance Rate Program, required of all homeowners carrying a mortgage.

When the first round of maps came out in 2012, some homes once listed as 50 feet above the potential high water mark of coastal surge from the kind of powerful storm Maine has a 1-in-100 chance of seeing in any year, were well below the inundation line. In setting the flood zones, the FEMA maps assess both the potential vertical rise of ocean swells at the snore, but also “run-up” — how far a wave may travel vertically as it interacts with land in low-lying and marsh areas.

“It’s not as simple as just drawing a horizontal line from the top point of the high-water mark,” said Jay Chace, then the assistant town planner in Scarborough, during his town’s 2013 appeal.

According in Kennebunkport Town Planner Werner Gilliam, even in its third iteration, more than 1,700 homes in town stand to face a dramatic hike in insurance rates based on the new flood zones.

“Over the past couple of years we’ve taken a hard look at these maps, to do what we think is best for the residents in terms of protecting them from flood risk, but also, hopefully, protecting them from financial overreach by the National Flood Insurance Program,” Gilliam said.

“With 1,700 properties, this isn’t just about Goose Rocks Beach,” said Richard Driver, chairman of the town’s beach advisory committee. “We’re talking about a lot of properties in town that are going to be impacted. And it [the insurance rate] doesn’t just increase by a few dollars. I’m not in the flood zone and pay $500 [per year], but if I was in the flood zone, depending on the elevation, it could go up $10,000 per year. That is the issue.

“And no individual property owner can afford to do an appeal, through Ransom or any other firm. It really falls on the town,” Driver said.

At its July 13 meeting, Kennebunkport Selectmen agreed to join with several towns in an appeal of the latest maps, released earlier this year. That effort is being spearheaded by Ransom Consulting Engineers of Portland, which has ridden point on the issue since the beginning.

The company successfully appealed flood maps along the Kennebunk River in 2013, although it determined that year that little could be done about flood zones listed along Goose Rocks Beach, based on the modeling methodology used by FEMA. However, that ares may now be back on the table.

“With the new revisions, we expect appealing [flood] zones in the Goose Rocks Beach area will now be feasible,” the company wrote in a June 19 proposal to the town.

According to that document, Ransom anticipates a two-pronged attack for its appeal war plan.

Phase I would create a regional model of the coast using the FEMA-approved methodology.

Phase II would then narrow the scope to a more detailed model of specific towns and map sections.

According to Town Manager Laurie Smith, if four towns join Ransom’s appeal — and Wells is reportedly already on board — Kennebunkport’s cost for the work would be about $82,000.

Smith said selectmen set aside $30,000 for any flood map appeal as part of the current year municipal budget. Selectmen also have a $25,000 contingency fund to draw on, which Smith said she is working with the town treasurer on closing out the books on fiscal year 2017, and expects to fund another $23,000 left over in planning and permitting budgets that can be reallocated.

“But that still leaves us a couple thousand [dollars] short,” she said.

Selectman Ed Hutchins abstained from the vote, citing a perceived conflict of interest due to his status as a commercial fisherman. That did not stop him from weighing in, however.

“I have found some of the things to have been said [about the FEMA maps] to be very interesting and very true, but I’ve been party to suing the government before and it’s really hard to prevail.

“If we knew we could prevail at this money, absolutely. But we’re really rolling the dice here,” Hutchins said. “You’re talking $82,000. That’s more than most people make in a year. That’s more than the median income in Kennebunkport.”

“But don’t forget, this is the third FEMA map,” Selectman Sheila Matthews Bull said. “And that’s because we all stood together and said this is not correct. So, they went back and looked at it again, and again, and now this is a more thorough map. So, they listened. So, who knows?”

“As much as FEMA seems to be an adversary in this, and in all the difficulty we might have in getting them to accept new information from the community, this appeal process is in place as sort of the legal structure to provide data from the community,” said Ransom project manager and wave modeling specialist Nathan Dill. “So, this is the time when FEMA is most open to accepting revised analysis that comes from the community. Then, after that, if the community doesn’t take advantage of that, the appeal process becomes more difficult, and it’s that much harder to get those flood maps revised.”

According to Selectman Allen Daggett, there’s a practical reason for the town to get involved, apart from wanting to help local residents. The maps have the potential to impact the town’s bottom line as well, when it comes to assessing and taxing coastal properties.

“I can see this severely affecting the value of homes along the waterways,” he said.

Dill said Phase I of Ransom’s work will take about 12 weeks to complete. Phase II will begin when FEMA formally opens its 90-day appeal process. That window could open any time between now and September, Dill said.

“Although some level of reduction in flood elevations and flood zones are typically obtained through FEMA appeals, we cannot guarantee that our review and additional modeling will show that FEMA has significantly, over-estimated the flood hazards or that an appeal could effectively reduce the flood zones and base flood elevations,” Ransom cautioned in its proposal.

“I we should prevail in our appeal, can we know that FEMA won’t just come out with a new map,” Hitchins asked?

“Given that the last maps were made in the 1980s, I think that once a final determination is made and the communities accept them, there’s a good chance those maps will be in place for a while,” Dill said.

Kennebunk also is considering an appeal of the new FEMA flood maps. Community Development Director Chris Osterrieder said in a July 31 email that he and town staff will be meeting with FEMA officials on Aug. 23 to review the latest data.

A draft version of the new maps is available online at www.kennebunkmaine.us/ 496/ FEMA- Information, while letters have been sent by the town to all property owners affected by the changes.

“Between the meeting on the 23rd and citizen feedback, our hope is that we will be able to provide more information to the board of selectmen [for a decision on how to proceed],” Osterrieder said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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