January 20

Maine communities questioning the fairness of flood maps

Several expect to appeal new federal flood zones, which could mean soaring insurance rates for property owners.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Tom Lacasse, manager of the bar, restaurant and patio at The Brunswick hotel in Old Orchard Beach, stands outside the waterfront business. He worries that new flood maps could hurt the business by causing a steep increase in flood insurance premiums.

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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.


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.

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