PORTLAND — Federal officials will meet on Monday with representatives from several coastal communities in southern Maine to discuss proposed flood maps that would increase insurance costs and effectively curtail development.

The meetings are seen as a last chance for local and federal officials to work out agreements on new flood maps before a more adversarial appeals process begins.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s willingness to meet is good news because it will let South Portland discuss with FEMA its own scientific analysis of flood risks, said Tex Haeuser, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

Haeuser said the city has developed computer models for wind and wave action that are more sophisticated than FEMA’s models, and city officials want to know why the agency isn’t using them for its proposed flood maps.

FEMA’s proposal would designate much of the South Portland side of Portland Harbor and the Loveitts Field area a high-hazard zone. The designation would trigger development restrictions and higher insurance costs.

The agency has published preliminary flood maps for several other coastal communities in York and Cumberland counties, including Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Harpswell.

On Monday, officials from South Portland and Cape Elizabeth will meet with FEMA officials at 10 a.m. at the South Portland Community Center. At 1 p.m., FEMA’s representatives will meet in Portland with officials from the other communities. The location of that meeting has not been announced.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, will send representatives to the meetings.

To challenge the agency’s proposal, which became public nearly a year ago, the communities hired Robert Gerber, an engineer for Sebago Technics in Westbrook who specializes in computer modeling of environmental systems.

The effort has paid off for Portland, which announced a month ago that FEMA had pulled back from its plan to designate the Portland side of the harbor a high-hazard zone.

The other communities’ objections fell short, even though they are based on the same kind of computer modeling developed by Gerber.

Gerber said Portland also sought help from Maine’s congressional delegation, particularly Pingree and Collins, who is the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, which has oversight over FEMA.

Since Portland made its announcement, the other communities have sought help from the congressional delegation, Gerber said. That approach appears to be working, he said.

Pingree sent a letter last week to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, asking for a meeting with agency officials and local officials in her Portland office.

Collins said in a prepared statement Tuesday that it’s critical that the federal government and communities work “hand in hand” to produce accurate flood maps based on the best available data.

“We saw how effectively this partnership worked with the city of Portland,” Collins said. “As a result of the collaboration that followed, we saw improvements, based on science, that were made to the flood maps for Portland Harbor.”

The maps are the basis for federal flood insurance, which is required on mortgages for property in flood zones.

In high-hazard zones, increased insurance costs may make it too costly to expand existing structures or build new ones.

The federal government began a program to map flood plains in 1969. In 2003, Congress authorized updating the maps and putting them in a digital format. That process is under way in Maine, which still lacks detailed coastal elevation data east of Brunswick. Federal stimulus money will close that gap this fall, paying for aircraft with laser technology to finish the job.

On the coast, FEMA also collects data for wind speed and waves, calculating how high they could get at the peak of a storm that, statistically, happens only once in a century.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressherald.com