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Caught between a levee and a hard place

Flood map redraw could eventually put half the town in flood plain

News editor

Tough decisions lie ahead for Florence council members as federal remapping of flood plains could drive down real estate values and force many home and business owners to buy flood insurance.

Army Corps of Engineers workers will be surveying homes in the leveed area of Florence from Sept. 11-14, taking elevation measurements that will be used to decide if the flood risk level in those areas should be raised.

The status of the town’s levee lies at the heart of the issue. If it was certified by an outside engineer as structurally sound, a Federal Emergency Management Agency remapping project wouldn’t affect flood classifications.

But when city council grappled with the issue in 2011, the price tag for the engineering work was too high.

“We can’t come up with $100,000 to certify the dike,” council member Randy Mills said then.

Without a certified dike, and once the mapping project is completed, nearly half the town could be reclassified as high risk for flooding.

In turn, that triggers a requirement for mortgage-holders with federally-backed loans to buy flood insurance, said Steve Samuelson with the Kansas Department of Agriculture Division of Water Resources.

If a house in a high-risk area doesn’t have a mortgage, flood insurance isn’t required. If someone uses their house as collateral for a bank loan, however, then it would have to carry flood insurance.

So when could FEMA drop the bad news? No one can say for sure. Samuelson said the mapping project has been bogged down by budget issues.

“Until they get a preliminary map, we’re always a year in the future,” he said. “We’ll have a better idea when they get a preliminary map. Right now, we just have projected dates, and that’s conjecture.”

A costly fix, mayor Bob Gayle said, would be to get the dike certified. He estimated the cost to be at least $175,000, and the city is in no better position to take it on.

“We don’t have $175,000,” he said. “Maybe they could figure out how we get a partial grant or go to a source and borrow the money and pay it off over 20 or 30 years. Me personally, not speaking as mayor, the town needs to find some way of getting it certified, because otherwise I don’t see how the town has hope of moving forward.”

However, putting his mayoral hat back on, Gayle said he was reluctant to commit to recertifying the levee without a guarantee that there would be no changes for a long time.

“I want some guarantee they they won’t come back in 10 years and want to do something different,” he said. “When you’re dealing with bureaucrats and changing politics, you never know. I don’t know that I could suggest to the council we do it without a guarantee for 30 years.”

If an engineering study showed the levee needed repairs, or if bridges over the Cottonwood River and Doyle Creek had to be modified or removed, the cost would go up, Gayle said.

Without recertification of the levee, having half the town designated as high-risk flood status could be a hard blow for a community already struggling to survive, Gayle said.

Being in a high risk flood plain could make houses and businesses more difficult to sell, Gayle said, from both the added expense of flood insurance and a likely decrease in property values.

“How do you get a new business or industry to come into a flood plain? Would you?” Gayle said. “Business is risky enough without doing that. I’d be thinking it through pretty hard before I bought a house in a flood plain, especially if I have to borrow money.”

A house for sale for $40,000 would likely go for much less when a prospective buyer adds up the long-term cost of annual flood insurance premiums, Gayle said.

An area insurance agent who declined to be identified said $100,000 of high-risk flood insurance coverage would cost about $1,350 annually.

However, the city has taken a step that could reduce the cost of flood insurance by enrolling in FEMA’s Community Rating System for flood insurance.

“I have to credit Jan Robinson, our city clerk,” Gayle said. “She’s been here pretty much all along. She’s known about it and she filed the proper stuff.”

Communities in the CRS program can promote activities for flood preparation, mitigation, and management that in turn can lead to reduced rates. So far Florence has focused on education activities by distributing information to property owners and at the city library.

Samuelson said any home built before Feb. 4, 1987, when the first flood plain map was released, also qualifies for discounts.

The upcoming Corps of Engineers survey could be a gateway for property owners to obtain elevation certifications which are necessary to obtain flood insurance or to appeal a property’s classification.

While the survey team measures elevations, they don’t provide elevation certificates. An independent surveyor is required to do the work necessary for a permit.

The city hopes to find a surveyor who could review the Corps team work for a house and provide the professional sign-off needed for certificates.

County planning and zoning administrator Emma Tajchman asked commissioners Monday to consider helping Florence residents pay the fees for an independent surveyor, which would likely range from $50 to $100 per property, she said. Commissioners asked Tajchman to bring more information to an upcoming meeting.

Gayle said cities in similar binds should be more proactive in pushing for accommodations to the regulations and providing additional financial assistance to comply with requirements.

Last modified Aug. 17, 2017

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