South Portland councilors weigh flood map appeal

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors will vote Sept. 6 on whether to join an appeal of revised floodplain maps presented by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

While the final decision was not made at a workshop Monday, Aug. 28, a consensus showed every councilor except Eben Rose favored allocating $35,000 to the wider effort to contest maps once they are published.

“As I see it there is a class of citizen who lives near the shore that may be affected by an arbitrary new assignment. From my view the city has an obligation to step in,” Councilor Claude Morgan said.

City Planning Director Tex Haeuser said work by his staff and the Assessing Department has determined 25 parcels of land involving 224 owners that could be reclassified by the FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps have a “reasonable” chance of winning an appeal.

The properties include single-family homes, apartments and condominiums. Data presented to councilors can be found at http://bit.ly/2xNwwe0. Property owners can also search msc.fema.gov for details on the maps.

Four of the parcels are in the Loveitt’s Field area south of Willard Beach, near the Cape Elizabeth town line. The rest are along the Fore River.

“This appeal is not going to get anyone anything they want,” Rose said, adding the money could be better spent on mitigation efforts in the most vulnerable areas.

The maps, which could be published as early as October, are the third FEMA attempt this decade to redefine 100-year floodplains in the state. The findings carry financial consequences because property owners in the designated areas would be required to buy flood insurance if they also have federally backed mortgages.

Sue Baker, who coordinates the Maine Floodplain Management Program through the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said it is likely the maps will be publicly introduced in November, starting the clock on a 90-day appeal period.

“These maps are a foundation for an insurance program to determine where flood insurance is mandatory,” she said.

Baker recommended people who own homes mortgage-free in the designated areas should still consider flood insurance, based on whether they could absorb financial losses from flooding.

Ransom Consulting has offered to provide data for appeals based on more detailed mapping than used by FEMA, with an overall cost of $210,000 for the first phase. So far, Kittery, Wells, Kennebunkport, Harpswell, and Old Orchard Beach have signed on to get data that would help define specific wave action zones and estimated flood level heights.

“I’m not here to tell you you can hire us and we can reduce your insurance rates, or base flood elevation heights, or your flood zones,” said Nathan Dill of Ransom. “What we are offering South Portland is a second opinion on what the flood risk is and how it should be managed.”

In all, the new mapping could affect 129 parcels of taxable land with multiple owners and structures, with 78 seeing an increased risk assessment. Another 40 parcels would have their designations unchanged.

City staff determined there are now 122 properties holding flood insurance policies with a cumulative cost of $75,000 and value of $34.4 million.

A second appeal phase could cost the city between $20,000 and $48,000, according to a staff workshop memo. But staff also recommended holding off on that commitment until data from the first phase is reviewed.

City Manager Scott Morelli said FEMA’s zones are predicated on the severity and potential damage from flooding and erosion.

Along the Fore River, severity was increased despite the fact some of the waterfront remains sheltered, Haeuser said. The Loveitt’s Field parcels could be contested because the height of potential flooding is overstated, he said.

Councilors are also interested in enrolling the city in the Maine Floodplain Management Program Community Rating Service. The program outlines 18 methods of risk reduction that can also decrease flood insurance premiums for private property owners.

Baker said a rating reduction of only one level can result in a 5 percent reduction in insurance premiums. 

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

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.