Harpswell mulls challenge to new federal flood map

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HARPSWELL — The town may appeal new flood mapping by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that some people believe could impede land development or increase residential insurance costs.

FEMA’s remapping follows a congressional mandate to reassess the 100-year floodplain for coastal areas. But the agency’s effort is being met with resistance in communities where wider flood areas could lead to construction restrictions and force owners of existing residences and businesses to purchase costly flood insurance. 

Earlier this month, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport residents hired a consultant to question the validity of the new flood models. South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth have embarked on a similar effort. Portland, meanwhile, is hoping an engineering analysis by the city will convince FEMA to reconsider a flood designation that could stymie waterfront development.

In each instance, communities hired a consultant to challenge FEMA’s mapping model. Harpswell may launch a similar effort, pending a decision by the Board of Selectmen and voter approval either at Town Meeting.

On Dec. 17 the Board of Selectmen heard a proposal from Bob Gerber of Sebago Technics, who projected a review of FEMA’s preliminary mapping models would cost the town between $5,000 and about $17,500, depending on the depth of the study.

Gerber said his firm has already been hired by Falmouth, Cape Elizabeth and South Portland.

Gerber said municipalities have 90 days to challenge the new floodplain from the time FEMA enacts the new maps. After that, property owners will have to appeal individually.

The timing of FEMA’s enactment is important because Harpswell requires voter approval for any expenditures.

The earliest FEMA can adopt the new floodplain is Jan. 1, 2010. Although Town Meeting, scheduled for March 13, would fall within the 90-day comment period, Gerber told selectmen he would need 45 days to complete the analysis.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane told selectmen the town could schedule a special Town Meeting to hire Sebago Technics.

The issue has generated significant concern locally. Town staff gave selectmen copies of letters from residents appealing to FEMA to revise its flood models. Some argued that their properties had existed for decades without flood damage.

In a Nov. 19 letter to FEMA, Robert and Marolyn Bibber said their residence is 15 feet above the high-tide mark. The couple said FEMA’s new flood mapping would elevate the plain to 25 feet above high tide. The Bibbers argued the change was unnecessary because their home is in an island-pocked bay and less susceptible to storm surge.

“Maine is not like the Outer Banks of (North Carolina),” the couple wrote. “We are in colder water making hurricanes harder to reach us. We are in a bay, not in the open ocean. Waves would have to go over 70-foot to 100-foot islands to reach us, then turn a corner.”

Dr. Nelson Burton, of Cundy’s Harbor, wrote that FEMA’s new floodplain would change on his property from 12 feet to between 25 and 31 feet, thus requiring Burton to purchase flood insurance. 

“There are far reaching consequences to such changes proposed by FEMA,” Burton wrote. “Many Harpswell residents earn their living from the sea and therefore own waterfront homes, and it would be a shame if they were burdened with unnecessary expensive flood insurance.”

Ronald and Marie Christensen, of Brunswick, said FEMA’s new designation would limit their ability to build or rebuild on their their property off Route 123.

Gerber said the proposed floodplain could also hamper a $1.3 million renovation project at Dolphin Marina on Harpswell Neck.

“The new map puts them in a new zone that pretty much prevents them from doing anything,” Gerber said.

FEMA’s mapping effort has drawn attention from the state’s congressional delegation. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, along with Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe wrote to FEMA urging the agency to reconsider the state map, which they said, is based on inaccurate data.

In October, Pingree told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network that the impact on the state’s southern coast would be “devastating.”

It’s unclear how many properties would be affected in Harpswell. However, given the town’s more than 200 miles of coastline, the effect could be widespread.

The Board of Selectmen will vote Jan. 7 on whether to ask residents to pay for the analysis to dispute the FEMA flood projections.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net