2017-11-03 / Front Page

Town takes a pass on flood map appeal

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — A popular baseball bromide says that a tie goes to the runner. But in municipal politics, a tie goes to the status quo, even though the opposite motion was made.

That was the case at the Oct. 24 meeting of the Kennebunk Board of Selectmen, following a 3-3 split decision on whether or not to pony up $30,000 to appeal the most recent flood risk maps prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Selectman Shiloh Schulte was absent from the meeting and it’s possible the question could be brought back for reconsideration at the next selectmen’s meeting, Nov. 14. But for that to happen, the motion to reconsider would have to be made by one of those on the prevailing side — in this case one of the three who voted no: Blake Baldwin, Christopher Cluff, or Chairman Dick Morin. So, in other words, the matter left up in the air for months has almost certainly now been settled.

However, that may not necessarily be the end of the road for the 300 or so homeowners in Kennebunk who find their properties newly placed inside the 100-year floodplain.

So far, six municipalities have joined an appeal to the FEMA maps, to be filed by Portland-based Ransom Consulting Engineers.

In Phase I of the appeal, Ransom will create its own predictions on the extent of flooding from a so-called “100 year storm” — perhaps better described as the the type of event that has a 1percent chance of happening in any given year. Had Kennebunk become the seventh town to join the appeal, it would have paid an equal $30,000 share to develop an alternate statistical model, which Ransom would present to FEMA during a 90-day comment period — a window now expected to open sometime after the first of the year. After that, it would have cost Kennebunk between $20,000 and $50,000 to have Ransom apply its model specifically to the 14 flood zones listed in town by FEMA.

Baldwin suggested Kennebunk might simply forego paying Ransom for work it is going to do anyway, allowing the other six towns — Biddeford, Harpswell, Kennebunkport, Kittery, South Portland, and Wells — to foot Ransom’s $210,000 bill for Phase I.

“That report is going to be done notwithstanding our involvement one way or the other,” he said. “If it’s sent to FEMA, then it becomes a public record, at which point it’s free.”

“Who’s to say we couldn’t then say to Ransom, OK, we’ll pay you $10,000 to now come and apply this to our town,” Morin said. “I’m not convinced this is a prudent expenditure at this point.”

Cluff, meanwhile, suggested the new maps are really FEMA’s way of booting the bottom line on national flood insurance, following devastating hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico.

“We know that the national flood insurance fund is under water, so to speak,” Cluff said. “I’d assume this is FEMA’s attempt to fill the coffers by adjusting their maps and so forth. I don’t know if that’s true, but that would be my assumption.”

FEMA is actually now on the fourth iteration of its new maps since 2009 and Ransom has led the charge to counter its storm surge predictions at each stage.

The official maps FEMA wants to update were reportedly created in 1984. The maps assess both the potential vertical rise of ocean swells at the shore, and “run-up” — how far a wave may travel vertically as it interacts with land in low-lying and marsh areas — and Ransom argued the numbers were seriously botched, particularly on the run-up calculations.

Its most recent effort was bolstered by the fact that FEMA had to acknowledged discrepancies caused by different mapping software used in 2009 and 2013 iterations of the new maps. But even in the most recent version, first released this past April, the maps show high water marks rising several feet above the 1984 prediction.

The maps are important not just because they help state and city officials manage land use regulations. They also are a main determining factor in premiums set by the National Flood Insurance Rate Program, required of all homeowners carrying a federally-backed mortgage.

Ransom has said that being listed even one foot above the floodplain can save homeowners more than $2,100 per year on insurance, based on a building valued at $250,000. It also has said that locating a home within the 100-year flood line can lower its value by as much as 7.8 percent.

Many residents have lobbied selectmen to enroll Kennebunk in the Ransom appeal. Even among those who have not done so, interest in the maps has run high. Town Engineer Chris Osterrieder has said “between 85 and 90” homeowners have knocked on his door with questions.

But not all are in favor of funding an appeal on behalf of what is often presumed to be the town’s richest residents.

“To essentially subsidize waterfront property owners really doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” budget board member John Costin said.

At that, Selectman William Ward said his concern is not to help some residents lower their flood insurance rates, but to make sure that the property of any given resident is assessed fairly.

“Right now I would say that in some areas down there, there are some very serious questions as to how accurate the data is,” he said. “Not all beaches are designed the same. Some have a very shallow draft coming in, some have a very deep draft and that’s going to affect wave heights. And if their model is geared toward a greater wave height than what is actually there, then you are being unfair, not to one person, but to a whole bunch of people who are down there.”

Selectman Ed Karytko, meanwhile, said he feared the public reaction if Kennebunk bails on the appeal and it is ultimately successful.

“It would take a lot of pressure off of the town in that if we just went along with the FEMA maps as is and all of a sudden people in town heard the people in Wells had their flood insurance [costs] reduced because they were part of this consortium to relook at the maps, there might be some blowback, if you will,” he said.

But Osterrieder said that in reviewing the new maps, he only really has a concern with “three or four” of the 14 flood zones in town. For the most part, he said, a change in modeling is likely to move the prediction up or down only few inches, while the maps run lines by the foot, meaning that disproving the FEMA model may not have a dramatic impact zones, which he noted should be taken as a risk assessment, not an absolute prediction.

“It’s like a weather forecast,” he said. “You don’t get a prediction for snow to the nearest inch. You get a range.”

Still, Osterrieder had advised selectmen to join the appeal.

“It’s an investment for us to really ‘truth-out’ certain parts of this thing,” he said. “There’s benefit to be gained from participating in this. The goal is to get the best data possible. I don’t think the goal should ever be to go into it with a preconceived outcome.

“Well, I think anytime I spend $30,000, I’ve got a preconceived outcome,” Cluff said.

“Yes, but it’s hard to look at it and expect it’s going to magically drop by feet,” Osterrieder said. “I look at this as more of a peer review. If we did this analysis and the information didn’t change, I wouldn’t feel bad about that, because it would at least validate what’s on the table. It wouldn’t make me feel good that some people are [negatively] impacted, but it would at least tell me that the information is sound for us to use as a planning tool.”

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

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