2017-08-18 / Community

City may appeal FEMA flood maps

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The sea level may be rising, but the South Portland City Council is not yet ready to act like the sky is falling.

At its Aug. 7 meeting, the council voted 6-1 to commit to a study of new flood maps circulated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to an Aug. 28 workshop, rather than vote, as requested, on a call to join with other coastal communities in an appeal of the new zones.

Harpswell, Kennebunkport, Kittery and Wells have all recently voted to join in a formal appeal of the maps with Ransom Consulting Engineers of Portland, which has ridden point on the issue since the beginning. South Portland previously joined in a 2010 Ransom-led appeal, which sent FEMA back to the drawing board. Saco and Scarborough have both opted out, while Kennebunk and Old Orchard Beach are still weighing their options. Depending on how many towns end up joining the effort, the cost of hiring Ransom could cost South Portland between $35,000 and $42,000, according to City Manager Scott Morelli.

According to its proposal, Ransom anticipates a two-pronged plan for its appeal. Phase I would create a regional flood model of the coast using the FEMAapproved methodology. Phase II would then narrow the scope to a more detailed model of specific municipalities and map sections. Morelli said Phase II could cost South Portland anywhere from $20,000 to $48,000.

In a presentation to Kennebunkport, Ransom Project Manager Nathan Dill said Phase I of his firm’s work will take about 12 weeks to complete. Phase II will begin when FEMA formally opens its 90-day appeal process. That window is expected to open sometime around Sept. 6, Dill said.

Waiting much past Aug. 28 to give a green light could diminish Ransom’s efforts, Dill said, noting, “If we go any more beyond that, we’re not going to have time to do our work.”

Although the council packet on the FEMA flood maps included nearly 250 pages of data, including Ransom’s 2010 wave modeling report, it did not include Ransom’s proposal. However, the version voted on by Kennebunkport selectmen July 13 had the following disclaimer: “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.”

It was just that concern that prompted Councilor Eben Rose to motion for a workshop, rather than a vote.

“We have received an information packet of some 250 pages that I think is full of very distracting information, because it speaks in some detail about methods (of determining flood zones), which is not something this body will ever deal with. We are not the arbiter of methods.

“The question we need to know is: What properties are affected? How are they affected? What are the chances of this new model affecting these properties and changing anything? And what are their chances of success at appeal? There are many, many basic questions that need to be answered before we move to deliberation on this,” Rose said.

Rose said based on his research, it seemed the change would impact “relatively few” homes in South Portland, rather than the “hundreds” previously presumed.

Most on the council agreed with the need for a workshop.

“I really feel like I’m not ready to vote tonight. I need more time to digest all of this,” said Councilor Linda Cohen.

“I’m concerned about the timeline,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher. “But I need more information than what I’ve got here.”

However, Morelli said no amount of workshopping can answer some of Rose’s questions.

“I don’t know of a way to get statistical probability of appeals. That just seems like guesswork to me,” he said.

Morelli also said Rose may be off in his calculations of what properties might find themselves in the newly expanded flood zone, based on the current and former FEMA maps provided to the council Aug. 4.

“I think it’s more extensive than the 10 Councilor Rose has pointed out, because that didn’t take into account base elevation changes, which according to our planning staff, could affect hundreds of properties.”

That only redoubled Rose’s drive to go to workshop. His calculation of impacted lots was made based on the information provided to the council by City Planner Tex Haeuser.

“That’s all we have to go on,” Rose said. “So, if there’s some other important information about baseline data, that’s not in our packet. And yet we are expected to deliberate on this important issue with not the right information.”

Councilor Sue Henderson was the only one to oppose Rose’s call for more study time, before deciding whether to join the appeal. “I highly respect Councilor Rose, but I am going to take the opposite position,” she said. “I think it’s a reasonable thing for a city to do, to advocate for its own citizens. With one inch of water near a property, the insurance companies will jump on that. I don’t want to postpone this. I think we can take action tonight.”

Henderson also said worrying over which properties may be impacted by the zone change could constitute an invasion of privacy.

“I think we should do this (appeal) as a city and keep our eyes closed as to whose properties are affected,” she said.

The new maps represent FEMA’s third try at bat in the past eight years.

FEMA issued its first preliminary flood map updates in 2009, 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 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 who have a mortgage.

When the first round of maps came out, homes in some municipalities once listed as 50 feet above the potential high water mark of coastal surge from the kind of powerful storm Maine has a one-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 shore, but also “runup” – how far a wave may travel vertically as it interacts with land in low-lying and marsh areas.

Haeuser said the new maps show high water marks rising between 16 and 18 feet in the Loveitt’s Field neighborhood, while extending “pretty far inland” at Willard’s Beach.

“That’s quite a rise,” he said, adding that significant changes also are predicted to occur in the area of Spring Point, based on new wind velocity calculations.

Hauser said he expects the number of homes impacted to number in the hundreds. Ransom officials have said that being even one foot above the flood plain 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, while the combined reductions of affected homes could lower South Portland’s annual assessment by as much as 1.8 percent.

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