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Floodplain rule changes on hold in Scarborough

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Floodplain rule changes on hold in Scarborough

SCARBOROUGH — The last time revisions to floodplain management and zoning ordinances were to be discussed in Town Hall, Hurricane Sandy forced a cancellation of the Planning Board meeting.

The potential ordinance changes requiring new construction, reconstruction and substantial renovations to be set 3 feet instead of 1 foot above the 100-year floodplain are expected to be on the Dec. 5 Town Council agenda, but only to allow councilors to postpone further action on them.

Town Manager Tom Hall said municipal staff is recommending councilors hold off on seeking Planning Board input and then voting on the revisions until new floodplain maps are presented by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

New FEMA maps might be available next summer. It is not known how they might affect the Scarborough landscape, but holding off on zoning changes that currently would affect about 1,000 properties makes sense, Hall said.

"We see value in going a little slower and doing it right," Hall said.

The proposed zoning changes and FEMA maps are not directly connected, but any expansion of what is considered a 100-year-floodplain would affect the scope of the proposed requirements to increase elevations above the floodline.

Hall said zoning changes may yet occur in some areas, but postponing action now allows town officials more opportunities to explain what is at stake. Because property owners in affected areas, including Pine Point and Higgins Beach, are often seasonal residents, waiting as much as a year will mean better public engagement.

On Oct. 29, Planning Board members expected to hold public hearings on the ordinance changes before referring them back to councilors for a second vote. The agenda had been set before an Oct. 24 workshop lead by Assistant Town Planner Jay Chace, where some local residents questioned the need to move quickly to enact standards that are only currently on the books in Saco.

The Planning Board holds hearings and discusses zoning changes in an advisory manner before a second council reading and vote. Between the Oct. 29 Planning Board meeting and Monday's meeting, the hearings were removed from the agenda, although the ordinance changes had passed a first reading by councilors in early September.

Elevating structures 3 feet above floodlines is the first policy change suggested by officials from Scarborough, Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Biddeford and the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission, who comprise the Sea Level Adaptation Working Group. Saco city councilors approved the elevations last spring.

The group, known by its SLAWG acronym, has been working for about four years on methods and policy to help the towns cope with projected increases in sea levels in the next century.

Peter Slovinsky, a marine biologist with the Maine Geological Survey who is part of the Scarborough contingent in SLAWG, joined Chace at the workshop and described the data and studies leading him to anticipate sea level rises of 1 foot by 2050 and 2 feet by 2100.

Slovinsky said local data from buoy readings in Portland harbor and studies regarding melting ice caps are the basis for anticipated increases in sea level, but the real danger comes in storm surges, especially at high tides.

With large storms becoming more frequent, Slovinsky said SLAWG members envision the Saco Bay area from extending from Biddeford Pool to Higgins Beach to be especially vulnerable to storm surges.

The group has also discussed ways to protect public infrastructure like water treatment plants, roads and municipal properties, but considers tripling the required elevation above floodlines an easy first step for new construction, reconstruction of properties damaged more than 50 percent and renovations worth more than 50 percent of the current structure valuation on tax rolls.

The release of revised FEMA floodplain maps will be the second attempt by the agency to redetermine areas vulnerable to high water and wave actions. Maps released in 2010 for Cumberland and York counties were withdrawn after local residents and officials questioned the methods and technology used by the agency.

Of the 1,000 properties that would be immediately affected by the ordinance changes, Chace estimated 267 have flood insurance polices backed by the federal government.

Chace said national and local studies indicate the cost of elevating properties to 3 feet would be offset by substantial reductions in flood insurance premiums. A recent study provided by Gorham-based Chalmers Insurance Group detailed as much as 67 percent in savings on insurance premiums.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.