The federal government is releasing new flood zone maps that could raise some property owners’ insurance costs and make development or expansion in coastal areas more expensive.

But there are avenues to challenge or appeal the new maps once they are released.

“There is a remedy for property owners,” said Charles Katz-Leavy, a real estate attorney with Verrill Dana in Portland, who addressed a crowd of 86 real estate professionals gathered Tuesday morning for a seminar called “Reversing the Tide,” sponsored by the Maine Real Estate and Development Association held at the Clarion Hotel in Portland.

Although the updated flood zone maps may be two years away in some areas, property owners should be proactive about preparing for potential changes, said James Nadeau, a flood plain manager and land surveyor of Portland-based Nadeau Land Surveys.

Factors like changes in the watershed, loss of vegetation, development, climate change and rising sea levels can all impact flood risk and might not be reflected on the updated maps.

“Even if the maps were good when they were first created, they could be inaccurate now,” he said, giving property owners the basis to challenge the flood zone boundaries.

The maps are the foundation for federal flood insurance, which is required for mortgages on properties in flood zones. The maps are supposed to account for factors like topography, water depths and wind speeds, to determine which areas are at risk for flooding. When flood zones are expanded, property owners who previously didn’t need flood insurance may be required to buy it. And a home or business in a low- or moderate-risk zone may be reclassified in a high-risk zone, driving up insurance costs.

More than 9,200 flood insurance policies are now in effect in Maine, with coverage totaling nearly $2 billion, according to state insurance data. Bob O’Brien, an insurance broker with Noyes, Hall & Allen Insurance in South Portland, said that the average homeowner in Maine who buys flood insurance for a home outside a high-risk flood zone typically pays about $500 a year. If the property is reclassified as a flood hazard, that coverage could cost up to $4,000 a year.

GETTING READY

It’s not likely that updated maps will be adopted any time soon in southern Maine. Last November, preliminary maps were issued for York and Cumberland counties. Kennebunkport, Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough were among several towns that appealed the preliminary maps, said Sue Baker, state coordinator for the Maine Floodplain Management Program.

But that review process is on hold until an appeal in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, is resolved. In Plymouth County, the scientific methods used to assess flood zones there are being challenged and are now headed for a Federal Emergency Management Agency review process. Mapping in York and Cumberland counties used the same methodology.

“We’re kind of on hold right now,” said Baker of York and Cumberland maps. “We’re waiting on how that methodology is resolved before they move forward.”

She said it’s likely the new maps in southern Maine won’t be adopted until 2016.

New preliminary maps for five counties – Hancock, Knox, Lincoln, Waldo and Sagadahoc – have been issued and those communities have until early November to make an appeal. They are expected to become final in July 2015.

Flood maps for Oxford, Androscoggin and Kennebec counties have already been revised and preliminary maps for Washington County are expected soon, said Baker. The process has not yet begun in Aroostook, Franklin, Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset counties.

Once the updated maps are made available to municipalities, legal notices are published and then property owners and municipalities have 90 days to challenge the maps and provide evidence of inaccuracies. If an appeal isn’t resolved at that point, it moves to a committee of experts who review the data presented by FEMA and the property owner or community. The appeals can continue to U.S. District Court.

There are additional opportunities to challenge the maps that would likely require hiring an engineer or surveyor to evaluate a specific property.

“Don’t be scared if you’re put into a high-risk area,” said Nadeau.

“There may be a map error and you can challenge those. You need to know your options and I think that gets overlooked a lot. So often, people get scaled in [to high-risk zones] who don’t need flood insurance, but they don’t know that they can challenge the process. And they’re going to be paying more expensive insurance year after year even though they don’t need to.”

Once the new maps are finalized, lenders will send letters to property owners that they must get flood insurance within 45 days. Baker said if a home owner has federally-backed financing, like a mortgage, and looks like they are going to be reclassified into a flood zone, it’s best to get a flood-insurance policy before the new maps take effect.

“That’s going to be the best way to secure the lowest rate for as long as possible,” she said.

Consumers can check for updates to the maps at their town offices and on the FEMA web site, www.fema.gov, said Baker.

To find out more about flood insurance, consumers should go to floodsmart.gov.

Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at 791-6313 or at: [email protected]


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