Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth border each other, but new government flood maps treat each town very differently. That irks Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall, who believes the new maps place an unfair burden on his community.
Scarborough is one of at least six southern Maine towns that are expected to appeal the new federal flood zone maps, which could mean soaring flood insurance rates for home and business owners with properties inside newly designated flood zones.
Officials are also concerned because the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has yet to schedule public hearings on the new maps, and they fear residents will not have enough time to raise questions and effectively appeal the redrawing of flood zones.
Hall said the problem is that the scientific methodology behind the new maps was not applied equitably to every municipality.
“There are some stark differences between the towns, of course, but the base assumptions used to review the towns should not be different. It raises huge issues of fairness,” he said.
So why did flood zones expand more in Scarborough than in Cape Elizabeth? In 2009, Cape Elizabeth worked with a consultant to appeal the last attempt to remap flood areas. The science behind that appeal was accepted by the government as the criteria for the most recent flood zone mapping in that town.
That did not happen in Scarborough, however, and its new flood zone map was based on different benchmark assumptions.
Scarborough is not alone. A half-dozen or more southern Maine towns, including Old Orchard Beach and Harpswell, are balking at the differing standards used to map flood zones, and plan to file their own appeals, according to Robert Gerber, a senior engineer and geologist with Ransom Consulting who is working with 14 Maine communities on the issue.
“Old Orchard Beach is concerned that FEMA did not consistently employ the same methodology backed up by the same assumptions throughout all communities,” said Town Manager Larry Mead.
‘A LOT OF ANXIETY’
Under the new system, up to 42 percent of Old Orchard Beach will likely be in a flood zone, up from 28 percent on existing maps, according to Mead.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of concern,” he said. “There’s an immediate financial effect of flood insurance that could cost several thousands of dollars and that’s if you can find someone to insure you.”
Mead is worried that the new maps will compel some property owners to make expensive changes to existing structures, or restrict future development in his town. “We need to be realistic about the risk of flooding that’s out there,” he said.
The new maps, released by the federal government in November, rewrite the flood zones for Cumberland and York counties. Mandated by Congress in 2003, the revisions are part of FEMA’s effort to update flood maps for 350 coastal counties nationally, incorporating new technology and engineering models.
The proposed FEMA maps are not final. Maine homeowners, businesses and municipalities can appeal the flood zone classifications during a 90-day period that is expected to begin in early March. After appeals and final reviews, the maps would take effect in the summer of 2015. There have been appeals and objections to new flood zone maps in other states, including Massachusetts, Ohio and Texas.
The maps are used to set rates for federal flood insurance, which is required for mortgages on properties in flood zones. The maps are supposed to account for topography, water depths and wind speeds, among other factors, to determine which areas are at risk for flooding so severe that it may come only once in a century.
There are about 9,300 flood insurance policies in effect in Maine, according to Sue Baker, state coordinator for the Maine Floodplain Management program. Some insurance brokers have said new premiums could surge by five to 10 times the current levels. The average flood insurance premium nationally is $650 per year, according to FEMA.
Scarborough estimates that 449 parcels of town land and 480 buildings are within newly designated flood zones. Particularly upsetting to officials is the treatment of the Scarborough Marsh area of town, because the federal government did not spend money to specifically model the marsh as wetlands.
“The marsh area is treated as if it were the same as open water, and as if water would behave the same way as on a beach. That doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” Hall said. “It could have an impact on hundreds of properties.”
DECISIONS ARE NOT YET FINAL
Because of the potential ramifications for the town, Scarborough is spending about $30,000 to come up with its own map and wave-modeling calculations.
When flood zones are expanded, property owners may be required to buy flood insurance for the first time. A home or business in a low- or moderate-risk zone may be reclassified as being in a high-risk zone, driving up insurance costs and potentially requiring reconfiguring of the building so that there is no living space on a ground floor, or so that it has a foundation built on columns or stilts.
“The whole point of risk maps is for FEMA to give an assessment for risk for properties and people in coastal communities,” Old Orchard Beach’s Mead said.
“If I owned property in both Old Orchard Beach and Kennebunk – and the assumptions behind the risk assessment in those towns were different – can FEMA say they’re behind both sets of data?” he asked. “If so, then we want to use the Kennebunk assumptions. FEMA wasn’t able to answer that question of how they can have two sets of methodology.”
Kerry Bogdan, a senior engineer with FEMA in Boston, declined to discuss methodology, but emphasized that no final decisions on the mapping have been made.
“We can get an appeal that can change the proposed maps. Each appeal will get evaluated on an individual basis,” Bogdan said.
That there are different methods used in different towns is partially due to work Gerber, the consultant, did for some towns in the past.
In 2009, the cities of Portland and South Portland, among several other municipalities that hired Gerber, successfully challenged FEMA flood-map designations. As a result, FEMA scrapped the maps for York and Cumberland counties in 2010. Many of the assumptions and calculations used by Gerber were taken into account by FEMA for the most recent remapping effort. Other communities were mapped according to different assumptions and criteria, which some of those towns contend is unfair.
Cape Elizabeth Town Manager Michael McGovern said some individual homeowners in the community may appeal the maps on their own, but the community itself will not be appealing.
“FEMA had, in fact, listened to many of our previous concerns,” McGovern said.
The new flood maps also will dramatically affect Old Orchard Beach.
Tom Lacasse, manager of the bar and restaurant at The Brunswick hotel in Old Orchard Beach, said in the 11 years he’s been working there, water has never risen any closer to the building than 30 to 40 feet away.
“We’re not affected, even under the highest astronomical tides or storms,” Lacasse said.
The restaurant, which is on the water, does not currently have flood insurance, but Lacasse expects to have to take on that expense if the new maps are put into effect. He has yet to talk to an insurance broker because he’s waiting for Old Orchard Beach to go through the appeal process. Still, he’s worried about those costs.
“We’ve heard numbers anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000. I’m scared at the $25,000 number. Anytime you increase expenses, it adds to overall costs and unfortunately that gets passed on to consumer(s),” Lacasse said. “We’re dependent on tourism for our business, so any time you change pricing, it can hurt tourist traffic.”
DIFFERENT RULES FOR MUNICIPALITIES
Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine on Thursday filed an amendment to the Homeowners Flood Insurance Affordability Act that would make communities eligible for reimbursement from the government for the costs of successfully appealing inaccurate flood maps.
As current law stands, when FEMA locates a home incorrectly on a flood map, a homeowner can appeal the error in order to avoid paying the associated higher premium. If successful, the individual property owner is eligible for reimbursement by the government for the costs incurred during the appeals process.
If an entire community or municipality appeals a mapping issue, the communities as a whole are not eligible for reimbursement, and must pay for the costs of the appeal process themselves. The amendment filed by King would alter current law to mandate that communities are also eligible for reimbursement for the costs of successfully appealing bad mapping results.
FEMA is expected to host two public meetings for each of Cumberland and York counties, but the dates have not been set.
“There are hundreds of properties affected,” said Scarborough’s Hall. “Hundreds of people will want to come to these meetings. People need to know this is going on.”
Jessica Hall may be reached at 791-6316 or at: