South Portland joins appeal of FEMA flood maps

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SOUTH PORTLAND —In an attempt to save residents “unnecessary costs and burdens” if the latest FEMA flood maps for the city are incorrect, the City Council voted Wednesday to join a growing list of communities that are appealing.

The vote was 5-1, with Councilor Eben Rose vehemently opposed and Brad Fox absent.

In a memo to councilors, City Manager Scott Morelli said staff brought the idea of challenging the FEMA maps forward because “changes to these maps can affect the flood insurance rates property owners must pay and add additional restrictions and requirements for property redevelopment.”

Rose and several residents who attended the meeting, however, were not sold on the idea that spending $35,000 of taxpayer money just for the first phase of the appeal was the wisest course or the best use of city funds.

According to Morelli’s memo, the town of Harpswell is also appealing the new flood maps along with Kittery, Wells, Kennebunkport and Old Orchard Beach. Scarborough has opted out and Portland, Biddeford and Kennebunk are still considering their options.

Morelli said in his memo that South Portland’s flood maps were last revised in 1984-85.

“In 2010, FEMA released revised (maps) but pulled them after a number of coastal communities raised concerns about the science behind the models … (which) included South Portland,” Morelli said.

Then, in 2013, FEMA released a revised set of maps, but, he said, those were “also pulled due to discrepancies.” The latest maps, which came out in April, were intended to address those issues, according to Morelli.

He said as a result of the new mapping, 224 parcels, almost entirely in coastal areas of the city, would be impacted.

Arguing that FEMA doesn’t always have the best track record in creating accurate flood maps, Councilor Claude Morgan urged his fellow councilors to at least move forward with the first phase of the appeal process.

That includes hiring Ransom Consulting, Inc., based in Portland, to create a new regional model of the coastline in Cumberland and York counties using a different model than the one used by FEMA.

In Ransom’s view, Morelli’s memo said, the computer modeling that FEMA relies on to draw the flood maps is “simplified and overly-conservative.”

But Rose argued that Ransom has used “mercenary tactics” to convince South Portland there would be value in appealing the latest flood maps.

“When you get down into the details. This doesn’t make sense. Phase 1 will only provide a macro model for Maine and not the nitty-gritty details specific to South Portland,” he said.

Rose and several residents also argued Wednesday that the city could better use the money for flood mitigation infrastructure and resiliency planning.

Adrian Dowling said he’s concerned about the city appealing the new FEMA flood maps not because they add a new level of risk to a wide swath of the city, but because the federal agency “consistently underestimates the flood risk.”

“I would much rather see money put into flood mitigation,” he said, adding that providing protection from flooding “is the best insurance there is. It doesn’t make sense to spend money on (the appeal) instead of mitigation.”

Resident Greg Lewis argued it’s “prudent to err on the side of caution” and require coastal residents to buy flood insurance, given the damage seen in Houston due to Hurricane Harvey and the likelihood that parts of Florida will also be hit by Hurricane Irma later this week.

But former Mayor Rosemary DeAngelis said, “There have been serious errors (on the flood maps) in the past” and since “there are big impacts to being in a flood zone, (the appeal) is a fair use of tax dollars.”

However, she also said, “This is a complicated issue and mitigation should certainly be a component.”

When it came time for the council vote, several councilors, including Sue Henderson, said moving forward with the appeal does not preclude the city from also pursuing flood mitigation.

And, she said, ensuring that the flood maps are accurate would go a long way toward building public support for the “expensive and complicated” resiliency work that must be done to address the city’s future coastal flood risk.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

The new FEMA flood map for the city of South Portland. The City Council has decided to move ahead with plans to appeal the maps, which several councilors fear could be inaccurate.

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