Floodplain maps put homeowners in harm's way
YARMOUTH — There's a sliver of water running behind Jamie Brookes' house on Plimouth Way. To call it a brook would be an overstatement. A stream? In the spring, now, maybe.
It's located about 150 yards from Brookes' home, down in the woods where it runs behind several homes in the housing subdivision and trickles into the western tip of the Cousins River, about a mile and a half away. There's no other water nearby.
But according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's floodplain maps, Brookes' property is within the 100-year flood zone. The designation means Brookes has to buy flood insurance, which costs about $2,100 a year.
Brookes has lived in the house for 15 years. He refinanced his mortgage about six years ago. But it wasn't until this winter that he discovered he needed flood insurance. The bank that holds his mortgage, Bank of America, notified him about the floodplain designation in January. The bank soon began rolling the insurance costs into his mortgage payment and deducting it from his checking account.
"They call it forced flood insurance," Brookes said. "Forced, because that's exactly what it is."
Brookes is fighting the floodplain designation, which by the way, isn't even near the stream. According to Dan Jellis, Yarmouth's chief engineer, FEMA maps drafted in 1983 put the front of Brookes' property in the flood zone.
"It's just an inaccurate map," Jellis said.
It's a common problem, according to some municipalities and residents expected to be impacted by FEMA's updated maps.
Several communities, including Harpswell, Falmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Portland and South Portland, have already lined up appeals to FEMA's projected floodplain.
In Harpswell, some residents have written FEMA and town officials, appealing the proposed flood area. The letters echo Brookes' frustration, arguing that flooding would require 100-foot, corner-turning waves to reach their homes, which are tucked in intertidal coves.
In Portland and South Portland, city officials have been negotiating with the federal agency to re-evaluate a designation that could hamper waterfront construction and development. Those cities, along with attention from the state's congressional delegation, appear to be making headway.
Meanwhile, it's unclear how smaller communities, or individual residents, will fare if they appeal the new FEMA maps, which could be released next summer. Nationwide, the agency is facing challenges to its new floodplain. FEMA says its willing to hear appeals, but some communities and residents are claiming hardships.
In that sense, Brookes' situation is something of a cautionary tale. According to Sue Baker, the floodplain coordinator at the state Planning Office, it's a story she hears frequently.
"I get calls from people like (Brookes) several times a week," Baker said. "It's not uncommon."
Those calls are based on FEMA's old floodplain designation. Baker said the new maps would probably impact several Maine communities.
Baker contends there are some cases where properties should be included in the floodplain that currently aren't. However, there are many where the maps aren't correct.
"I worry about a couple communities in particular," she said. "In Harpswell they're looking at a change of about 20 feet, which seems a little ridiculous."
But the mere appearance of an error won't be enough to reverse FEMA's ruling, Baker said.
"The maps are based on science and engineering," she said, adding that it will require those same factors for a successful appeal.
Some communities, like Harpswell, Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth have hired an outside consultant, Sebago Technics in Westbrook, to help their appeals.
"Unfortunately that costs money," Baker said.
FEMA procedures give municipalities an appeal period before forcing changes to local ordinances. After that, it's up to individual homeowners to navigate the bureaucracy and deal with banks and mortgage companies, which according to Baker, are not always receptive to appeals, even when her office gets involved.
Last week, Baker wrote a letter stating that Brookes' property isn't in the floodplain. Brookes said he has sent the letter to Bank of America, but he hasn't received any indication the bank will waive the flood insurance requirement.
"I've experienced varying degrees of sympathy from (Bank of America)," Brookes said, adding that the bank representatives seemed most worried that he would take his case to the press.
Baker said banks' responsiveness to individual appeals varies. She said most are simply trying to protect themselves.
"In some cases you're dealing with a big bank where someone is looking at this from his or her office in Texas," she said.
Baker said her decision to back Brookes was based on reviewing the town tax map and overlaying it with the FEMA map. From there, she said, it was pretty obvious Brookes isn't in a floodplain zone.
"It was just a bad determination in (Brookes' case)," she said.
Asked why the designation could be so wrong, Baker said FEMA's mapping models are based partially on topographical data. Many parts of Maine, she said, don't have accurate topographical data.
"We're working on changing that," she said.
For Brookes, and potentially other area property owners, the changes can't come soon enough.
"I've made a lot of phone calls, dealing with automated answering systems at Bank of America," Brookes said. "By the time I get through to someone, it's all I can do to maintain my composure. ... It's not just feeling like you have no recourse, it's also trying to get someone to listen to you."
Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org