2018-01-12 / Community

South Portland decides against flood map appeal

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The irony of recent storm related flooding in South Portland may be that the city had recently elected to pull out of a joint effort to appeal the newest iteration of flood zone maps drawn up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

These maps show flood risk and are used to help determine federal flood insurance rates. The new maps would replace versions last drawn up in the 1980s. However, the new maps have been in circulation since 2009 and have been recalculated at least twice, based on complaints that the new lines move the potential risk of damage for a 100-year flood(thekindthathasa1percentchanceofhappeningin any given year) too far inland.

The most recent maps, released in April 2017, show high water marks rising between 16 and 18 feet above the 1984 prediction for the Loveitt’s Field neighborhood, according to City Planner Tex Haeuser, who added at an Aug. 7 council meeting that the maps also now show flood waters extending “pretty far inland” at Willard Beach.

According to Haeuser and City Assessor Jim Thomas, 224 parcels in South Portland, ranging from empty lots to condominium complexes, are impacted by the new maps, with about half (109) now listed in a higher risk zone, or subject to a higher base flood elevation.

Last summer, the city was approached by Ransom Consulting Engineers of Portland to join seven other communities in an appeal of the maps. For about $35,000 from South Portland, Ransom would have reviewed FEMA’s calculations. Based on how that went, Ransom would have then used its own modeling to take a closer look at the FEMA flood lines in South Portland. That would have cost upward of $48,000 extra, but might have resulted in amending the flood lines in some places, potentially moving some homeowners out of the new flood zone.

Ransom has claimed that being even 1 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 indicated 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 property tax assessment by as much as 1.8 percent.

Throughout meetings last fall, several homeowners urged the city council to join the appeal. However, when it came time to consider Ransom’s proffered contract at a Dec. 6 meeting, the council went into executive session to review three edits requested by City Manager Scott Morelli and City Attorney Sally Daggett.

Before the council left chambers to gather behind closed doors, Ransom founder and president Stephen Ransom rose to address the council, but was barred from speaking by Mayor Linda Cohen, who said the time for public comment had passed. When the council returned to public session 20 minutes later, Ransom said he could have saved them time, as he was happy to agree to two of the three demands.

Ransom has asked for a two-year time limit on any legal claims the city might choose to file if it found fault with Ransom’s work. However, Morelli said state statute allows four years.

The contract also had language stating the city would reimburse Ransom for its costs if they were to bring a claim against the company that proved unsuccessful in court.

“The city is agreeable to these terms if Ransom would agree to reciprocal language that states they will pay our costs if they bring an unsuccessful suit against us,” Morelli told the council.

However, it was the third change that proved to be a sticking point. After first asking that its liability to the city be limited to refunding its $35,000 should the city become dissatisfied with the services provided, Ransom later agreed to increase this liability limit to “$1 million, or available insurance, whichever is less.”

All other coastal towns that have signed on to have Ransom lead the appeal of FEMA’s flood modeling have agreed to the liability limit on its work. However, Morelli said South Portland’s “position has been that any limitation is unacceptable.”

The council agreed and charged Morelli with demanding no cap on how much South Portland might sue for if Ransom should somehow muff the project, such as successfully arguing for a map change that ends up misjudging the actual flood lines to a significant degree.

In a Dec. 20 email to councilors, Morelli said Ransom had declined to budge from its $1 million liability limit.

“I wanted to confirm that Ransom is unable to accept our request for ‘unlimited liability’ as part of the FEMA Phase I contract,” he wrote. “It was run by their board of directors, who were not willing to agree to no limits. As such, we will not be participating in the Phase I work, thus also negating our participation in Phase II work, or a joint appeal.

“At this point, unless directed by council otherwise at a meeting, staff will be stepping away from this issue,” Morelli wrote. “We will still work toward obtaining points through the Community Rating System to help property owners see flood insurance rates reduced, as time permits.”

According to Sue Baker, coordinator of the state’s flood insurance program, within the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, the Community Rating System program is “basically an insurance reward program for communities that go above and beyond the minimum standards,” to prevent flood damage. As part of the program, point values are assigned by the state for different things done by the city to reduce flood damage risks, such as maintaining open space areas, enlarging shoreland setbacks and enacting ordinances that raise the minimum first floor elevation of homes within flood zones.

Current plans do not call for any overt ordinance changes to mitigate potential flood damage. Instead, plans call for establishing a sort of community risk reduction program, in hopes of helping homeowners understand what they personally can do to lower the risk of flood damage to their homes.

South Portland is rated a Class 10, since it is not in the state’s Community Rating System program, but with just 500 points to its credit for work undertaken to collectively reduce risks, it could be listed as a Class 9 municipality.

“Open space, that’s a huge point-getter,” Baker said. “You can jump almost one whole class just based on how much open space you have.”

According to Baker, a Class 9 rating would save city residents paying for flood insurance in South Portland a combined $2,800 per year. Getting reduced further to a Class 8 would increase the total savings to $5,600, she said.

There are currently just three towns in Maine rated a Class 7 by the Community Rating System program, Baker said, but residents there are saving 15 percent annually on their flood insurance premiums.

At a council meting back in September, Baker said a formal appeal is not the only opportunity a community has to argue for different flood zones. Even after the appeal deadline passes and the maps are made official, the city can submit a letter of map amendment, or a letter of map revision, at any time. “It is possible to change only a particular area, with new or updated engineering,” she said, at a September council meeting. “Those processes are always open to property owners once the maps go effective.” Baker also said most homeowners will be grandfathered and only have to pay flood insurance rates based on their current risk zones, even if deemed to now be in a higher risk area, just so long as they do not allow their policies to lapse.

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

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