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Southern Maine communities request delay of flood maps, FEMA says no

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Southern Maine communities request delay of flood maps, FEMA says no

PORTLAND — Several communities contesting portions of a newly proposed federal floodplain zone urged the Federal Emergency Management Agency to delay the adoption process, but agency officials Monday seemed unlikely to alter their plan.

In meetings June 12 in South Portland and Portland, officials from South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Falmouth, Harpswell, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport questioned representatives from FEMA's Region 1 office in Boston about a new floodplain designation that they said in some instances could impede development or force homeowners to buy expensive flood insurance.

Each of the communities has hired an outside consultant to refute portions of the new maps, which they say are well outside the danger zone of a so-called 100-year flood.

FEMA officials acknowledged that there might be errors, citing finite resources that limited the depth of modeling the agency used to predict areas impacted by waves generated by a hurricane or storms.

The federal officials said mapping data could have produced inaccuracies and welcomed additional information to correct them.

But the admission was of little solace to officials from some towns that have spent up to $17,000 for a consultant to appeal the proposed floodplain. Further, some local officials said they aren't confident FEMA has the capacity to fully consider the updated data during a fast-approaching 90-day appeal period.

The appeal period initiates a series of rigid adoption steps that could force communities to agree to the maps by June 2011, or risk being kicked out of the National Flood Insurance Program.

The appeal period could start as soon as July 24.

Although FEMA is required to resolve each appeal before the next phase of adoption, some town officials wondered why the agency couldn't delay the process while evaluating information produced by their consultant, Bob Gerber of Sebago Technics.

"We'd prefer you look at (Gerber's) information up front, before the appeal process," said Kristi Eiane, Harpswell's town administrator. "We have a lot of property owners who will be affected by this. They are very concerned."

Gerber was also hired by Portland and recently helped the city convince FEMA to revise the proposed floodplain for Portland Harbor. That process took several months and pressure from the state's congressional delegation.

Although members of the delegation helped organize Monday's meeting, some community officials worried the agency isn't under the same pressure to hear their cases.

"It's somewhat frustrating because we tried to be proactive on this," said Jim Gailey, the South Portland city manager.

South Portland hired Gerber a year ago, and has paid about $8,000 so far for his analysis. Some of it refutes the placement of more than a dozen residents in the Loveitts Field neighborhood in the floodplain, despite their perch atop 30-foot bluffs. According to Tex Hauser, the city planner, water "from a tsunami" couldn't reach those homes.

But, Gailey said, South Portland has waited to make its case while FEMA worked through its issues with Portland.

"Portland is the state's largest city, I understand that," he said. "But I kind of feel like we've been (put on the back burner). I've taken offense to that."

Gailey said Gerber submitted his South Portland report to FEMA several months ago, but hasn't received much of a response.

Mike Geotz, from FEMA's Region 1 branch, told South Portland officials that the agency had been immersed in the Portland case.

"That was a complicated situation in Portland Harbor," he said. "That took a lot of time and resources."

Goetz's response prompted concern from Gerber, and later other community officials, who worried that the agency can't handle the other appeal cases.

Geotz later tried to assure them the agency would fully address all appeals.

Later, when pressed to delay the appeal period during the Portland meeting at the Ocean Gateway terminal, FEMA officials said they couldn't do so because it could delay adoption of the new maps for another year.

Larry Mead, town manager of Kennebunkport, said two-thirds of property owners would be impacted by the proposed flood zone, a 50 percent increase. Mead said he had no problem delaying adoption of the maps because it would give FEMA more time to get them right.

"Everybody's affected," he said. "It's a big deal."

But FEMA's David Mendelsohn said the agency is compelled to move forward because the maps identify additional flood risk.

"Should we hold that information back?" he said. "Maybe we'll get lucky and there won't be another storm?"

The agency's stance on risk awareness appeared at odds with the situation in Falmouth, where the agency opted not to conduct updated floodplain analysis.

Gerber, who was hired by Falmouth to review FEMA's data, said Monday that his models actually showed portions of the town that should be included in the flood zone, but aren't in FEMA's updated maps.

"Falmouth might be one town that's hesitant to submit my report," Gerber quipped during the South Portland meeting.

Later, in Portland, Gerber asked Goetz what he should do with his information. Goetz, who said Falmouth was excluded from new analysis because of the agency's limited funding, said it is up to Falmouth officials to make that decision.

FEMA representatives also assured local officials that the agency would review requests to change the flood designation, even after the new maps are adopted.

However, that process has proved costly and difficult for some residents, some of whom are fighting FEMA flood maps adopted in the 1980s. In some cases, the homeowners don't discover they're in a flood zone until they refinance their mortgages and are suddenly required by lenders to purchase flood insurance. The cost can be up to $2,000 per year. 

Disputing the designation often requires hiring a surveyor or someone like Gerber, who said some individual cases cost about $1,500.

In both meetings on Monday, local officials asked the FEMA representatives to hold town hall-style meetings to explain the process to residents.

Eiane, of Harpswell, said residents "want to feel good about the methodology and process FEMA has used."

Barry Tibbetts, the town manager for Kennebunk, was more blunt.

"Residents don't want to feel like this is being jammed down their throats by the federal government," Tibbetts said.

Cape Elizabeth Town Manager Mike McGovern, however, had few issues with FEMA's remapping, saying some property owners should be forced to buy flood insurance rather than ask to be bailed out if disaster strikes.

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

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