November 6, 2013

New flood zones to hit some Maine landowners hard

Insurance costs may soar and restrictions will apply to land in expanded areas. But owners can appeal.

By Jessica Hall
Staff Writer

and J. Craig Anderson
Staff Writer

The federal government has released new flood zone maps for York and Cumberland counties that could raise some residents’ insurance costs by thousands of dollars and restrict property owners’ rights to develop or expand properties in coastal locations.

TO VIEW the new flood maps, click here.

The maps, which were released online Tuesday and will be available in city and town offices in the coming days, are expected to extend flood zones farther inland, putting more homes and businesses in zones considered high-risk.

The maps are not final. Individuals, businesses and municipalities can appeal flood zone classifications during a 90-day period. After appeals and final reviews, the maps are projected to take effect in the summer of 2015, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The maps are the basis 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.

When flood zones are expanded, property owners who never have had to purchase flood insurance may be required to buy it. And a home or business in a low- or moderate-risk zone may be reclassified as being in a high-risk zone, driving up the owner’s insurance costs.

“If flood zones are expanded, then new areas will have restrictions on what can be built or expanded,” said Robert Gerber, a senior engineer and geologist with Ransom Consulting.

Gerber, who specializes in computer modeling of environmental systems, is a consultant for 14 Maine cities and towns that are expected to appeal the new maps.

Charles Katz-Leavy, a real estate attorney with Verrill Dana in Portland, said, “For a property owner who has land that isn’t developed yet or is preparing for expansion, it could impact what you do with your property.

“If you have a project to build an office, hotel or restaurant on the water and were not previously under a flood zone and now you are, you will have to buy flood insurance,” he said. “You also may have to elevate any structure that is being built. The costs could be prohibitive and render your property undevelopable.”

A new map that puts a property into a “special hazard zone” can be devastating financially, even for a homeowner who has flood insurance, said Bob O’Brien, an insurance broker in South Portland.

“Being in a special hazard zone can increase your flood insurance by five to 10 times,” said O’Brien, vice president of Noyes, Hall & Allen Insurance.

O’Brien said the average homeowner in Maine who buys flood insurance for a home outside a high-risk zone pays $500 to $600 a year. If the property is reclassified as a flood hazard, that cost could easily hit $5,000 to $10,000 a year, he said.

The maps released Tuesday by FEMA will replace maps issued in 2009 that prompted an outcry from municipalities about mistakes and miscalculations. After hundreds of homeowners appealed their inclusion in flood zones, FEMA scrapped the maps in 2010 and restarted the analysis.

At the time, municipal officials and property owners said the maps didn’t accurately represent the terrain or account for the protection offered by Maine’s jagged coastline, including islands, protected harbors, artificial barriers and underwater ledges.

It’s impossible to know yet how many homeowners in Maine will be affected by the changes in the new flood maps, O’Brien said. FEMA officials will first notify flood insurance providers, who will then notify their clients of any changes to their premiums, he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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