Wednesday, December 11, 2013
By Jonathan Riskind firstname.lastname@example.org
Washington Bureau Chief
Nancy and Mike Heath went into panic mode about a year ago when they tried to refinance their Westbrook home and were told they lived in a flood zone and had to pay $1,700 a year for federal flood insurance.
To refinance their Westbrook home, Nancy and Mike Heath had to hire a surveyor to prove that they do not live in a flood zone. If they hadn’t disputed the flood zone designation, they would have had to pay $1,700 a year for federal flood insurance.
John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
CUMBERLAND, YORK REVISIONS DUE IN 2013
The issue of flood zone map mistakes has been a high-profile one in the Portland area.
In 2009, the Federal Emergency Management Agency came out with new proposed maps for Cumberland and York counties. They were widely criticized as wrongly placing many homeowners, businesses and entire communities in high-risk flood areas requiring expensive insurance or prohibiting new development altogether.
FEMA wound up withdrawing those maps in 2010 for more work. They are due back out in late 2013 and are supposed to be effective in the summer of 2014, according to FEMA.
David Mendelsohn, a FEMA community coordination officer based in Boston, said the agency tries to use all available information to improve its maps. FEMA was willing to pull back last year's controversial changes in York and Cumberland counties when presented with evidence that the new maps weren't accurate enough in assessing flood risk, he said.
"We are all about identifying what the risk is to people. We don't want people to be surprised when the waves come lapping in the front door," Mendelsohn said. At the same time, "We want to bring in new information wherever there is new information so the maps can be as accurate as possible."
-- Jonathan Riskind
IS YOUR HOME IN A FLOOD ZONE? Click here to find out.
That would total $25,500 over a 15-year mortgage, just as the couple -- Nancy is a paralegal and Mike a teacher -- is trying to save for their two sons' college educations.
"I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' " said Nancy Heath, whose home sits high and dry on a hill 18 feet above a drainage swale.
"The map was totally wrong."
But proving that their split-level home didn't belong in a flood zone cost the Heaths about $700 and delayed their refinancing.
The Heaths are not alone.
Last year, 370 Maine property owners appealed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remove their homes or businesses from flood plain status, according to the Maine State Planning Office. Most of them had to hire surveyors at an average cost of $750 to prove they didn't need to pay for costly flood insurance policies required to obtain a mortgage.
Maine's rate of flood plain appeal applications is three times the national average, according to the office's Maine Floodplain Management Program. One reason is because the federal government has put more effort into improving maps in states with higher populations. Maine's maps tend to be older than the national average, according to Joseph Young, the state program's mapping coordinator.
Even though new federal maps are issued every few years, that doesn't mean they are produced using new and improved technology, Young says. Often, old map data is simply overlaid with new digital photographs that don't correct old mistakes, he said.
That is why some lawmakers are pushing for property owners to be reimbursed for the cost of a successful map appeal.
But Congress is divided over the reimbursement proposal.
REIMBURSEMENT, OR BETTER MAPS?
The House last year approved a bill that would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the national flood insurance program, to reimburse property owners. But the Senate's bill focuses on spending more money to improve the maps.
While the actual flood zone appeal is free, it usually requires hiring a surveyor or engineer to prove that a house should be removed from a flood zone.
Since 1983, the earliest date with available data, there have been more than 3,400 flood plain map appeals in Maine, costing property owners more than $2.6 million, according to the State Planning Office.
The office doesn't break down approvals versus denials but says most applications are approved because they aren't made unless an owner is pretty certain of his or her case.
There has been a steady increase in appeals over the past decade. Young attributes that to increased awareness among banks that they are required to check flood plain maps before granting a mortgage or risk a federal fine.
Appeals averaged nearly 300 a year for much of the past decade, compared to fewer than 100 cases a year during the 1990s and fewer than 50 cases a year during the 1980s.
"It is a big burden in Maine," said Sue Baker, the planning office's National Flood Insurance Program coordinator. "It costs people money to prove they are not in a flood plain when their homes are mapped inaccurately."
Both of Maine's U.S. House members, Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, support reimbursing homeowners who prove their case. The state's two U.S. senators, however, are not convinced, saying they want to make sure there is enough money available to produce better maps in the first place.
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