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FEMA revises flood maps, easing Portland Harbor development restrictions

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FEMA revises flood maps, easing Portland Harbor development restrictions

PORTLAND — A federal floodplain designation that would have restricted development on virtually all of the city's wharfs and piers was reversed Thursday, a move city officials said could have implications locally and nationally.

On Friday, officials and owners of property on Portland Harbor gathered on Union Wharf to laud the agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will allow new and rehabilitation construction on most of waterfront.

The announcement capped off year-long negotiations between the city and FEMA, which last year surprised planners with a floodplain designation that would have resulted in increased flood insurance premiums for property owners and effectively halted waterfront development except for smaller structures, like lobster shacks.

FEMA's proposed designation would also have prevented renovation of buildings that were more than 50 percent destroyed.

"Last year we walked out of that meeting with FEMA really feeling like our goose was cooked," said Charlie Poole, the owner of Union Wharf, who is now securing loans to improve wharf buildings that would have otherwise been unavailable.

According to Penny St. Louis Littell, the city's planning director, the city used historical data, including wind readings from Portland International Jetport and three-dimensional models, to prove that the harbor is sheltered from the effects of a 100-year flood. The city also hired Sebago Technics in Westbrook to refute FEMA's flood projection, which Littell said, were based on one-dimensional models. 

The city also had assistance from the state's congressional delegation.

"The original flood zone FEMA proposed last year was based on flawed data,” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said in a press release Friday. “And it would have been devastating to the working waterfront and brought future economic development to a halt. I’m glad FEMA listened to us and went back to the drawing board."

Sebago Technics has been hired by several other communities, including Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth and Harpswell, to refute FEMA's updated floodplain, which affects towns from York to Harpswell.

Unlike Portland, where concerns over derailed commercial development triggered the city's appeal, the updated flood maps will likely impact homeowners in smaller communities.

Towns have an appeal period to refute a flood designation. After that it is up to the homeowners to negotiate with FEMA or their mortgage lenders, a process that's already been shown to be difficult for some residents who are fighting FEMA's old flood plain.

According to City Manager Joe Gray and Littell, Portland's negotiations with FEMA were monitored nationally by other waterfront municipalities, some of which are bracing for the agency to release updated flood maps over the next year.

Littell said the new agreement will return most of the waterfront to its current flood designation, which is based on FEMA maps from 1986. It will also allow the city to maintain flood insurance on properties it currently owns.

A 25-foot-wide section along the northwest side of the Maine State Pier will fall under the new flood designation, as will Ocean Gateway. However, city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the city isn't disputing the designation because it won't impact plans to redevelop the Maine State Pier or a proposed mega-berth at Ocean Gateway.

City officials didn't provide information about how much it cost to fight the designation, only that the bulk of the expense was staff time and services provided by Sebago Technics.

Poole, the Union Wharf owner, said that wharf and business owners were prepared to contribute financially if the city's effort failed.

Littell said it was important to spend the money to preserve the city's working waterfront.

"This really caught us by surprise," said Steve DiMillo, whose family owns a marina and Dimillo's Floating Restaurant on Long Wharf. "This is really good news, not just for Long Wharf, but for all the wharves and piers."

The city was expected to release the updated maps on Monday, June 7.

"We are glad we were able to work with property owners and pier owners to come to this agreement with FEMA," Gray said. "The proposed maps would've posed significant economic troubles for pier owners."

 Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net

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