Southern Maine towns will fight FEMA

unclesamfightingMunicipalities claim new flood maps are not accurate
June 01, 2014 2:00 AM

Several York County coastal communities are banding together to send a clear message to Maine’s senators and the Federal Emergency Management Agency: The preliminary FEMA floodplain maps are wrong and should be pulled.

Officials from a number of York County towns are considering filing a joint appeal of the maps, on grounds that the same flawed methodology was used by FEMA up and down the coast. Better yet, they say FEMA should consider pulling the maps altogether and starting from scratch.

“We have shown that the technology they have used is incorrect, so either they should pull these maps and use the correct technology or accept the findings we are coming up with and extrapolate that to the rest of the county,” said Wells Selectman Robert Foley.

These issues were discussed at a recent meeting of municipal officials from York and Cumberland counties at Kittery Town Hall. The group had gathered to discuss mutual problems with the maps and to brainstorm possible solutions.

“We were looking to take a more efficient approach,” said Kittery Town Manager Nancy Colbert Puff. “We are all experiencing the same issues in York and Cumberland counties. The idea is that we could save time, energy and perhaps money if we all get together now.”

Wells officials took center stage at the meeting, because they had a meeting with FEMA at the end of April about their own maps. According to Foley, Wells — unlike other towns in York County — had been remapped in 2003. No other town had been remapped until this latest round preliminary maps was released in 2013.

“We said the maps are still accurate,” Foley said. “We asked FEMA to waive us. They simply said no, we’re not going to do that. They didn’t look at any of our documentation. There wasn’t really any discussion. It was very frustrating.”

The last flood maps for York and Cumberland counties were released in the 1980s with some updating in the years since. But an overhaul of the maps has happened only recently, since the advent of precise mapping technology.

In 2009, FEMA redrew the maps for the two counties, but after a number of communities raised issues about the validity of the maps, implementation was pulled. When the maps were reissued last year, seven towns that successfully disputed the 2009 maps were allowed to adopt those maps. All other affected towns in the counties, however, had to follow new FEMA mapping requirements.

The new preliminary maps are flawed in several ways, said Robert Gerber, a geologist and senior engineer with Ransom Consulting in Portland. Gerber was hired by several towns in Maine and Massachusetts to appeal the maps. He has said he found the methodology used to equate elevation, as well as wave action, is flawed and unevenly applied. In addition, municipalities feel it’s unfair that the towns that appealed in 2009 were set to a different standard than the rest, he said.

Kittery Assistant Town Planner Chris DiMatteo has said the 1984 maps were paper and the 2013 digital preliminary maps “seemed like they just slid over” the old maps like a picture poorly focused.

Under the preliminary FEMA maps, 235 new properties in Wells will be added; 47 are being added in Kittery; and in York, downtown York Beach was added to the floodplain.

The story was repeated up and down the coast, Colbert Puff said of discussions at the meeting. She said of the municipalities that sent representatives, Kennebunkport, Wells, Saco, Old Orchard and Scarborough are poised to appeal the maps.

The Kittery Town Council on Wednesday night voted to expend funds for an appeal, but the vote was overturned over a wording issue. It is expected to be brought up again at the next council meeting.

Appeals are not inexpensive. Wells officials have received a price tag of $40,000 to $80,000, and Kittery is facing a tab of $20,000. That is why the towns thought there might be some economy of scale if they could file a joint appeal.

Representatives of both Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, attended the meeting in Kittery. Municipal officers asked them to explore with FEMA the possibility of filing a joint appeal.

Collins communications director Kevin Kelley said the senator is aware of the issue raised by the towns and is working with Sen. King’s office to bring the matter to FEMA’s attention.

“The economic consequences of the revised flood maps can be quite dramatic and devastating,” Kelley said. “It is vitally important, therefore, that these flood maps are accurate and reflect the true nature of a flood risk to homeowners. The process of devising maps must also include stakeholders of the affected communities.”

The two senators are working closely to determine the best way to move forward with FEMA, said King’s press secretary, Scott Ogden.

“Sen. King has heard and shares the concerns of towns across southern Maine and he intends to continue to press FEMA to work in an open, transparent and collaborative way with local municipalities throughout the appeals process,” Ogden said.

Meanwhile, that appeals process has yet to begin. Originally expected to start in September, it has been put off several times. It was to have started in mid-April, and then by the end of the month.

Wells Town Manager Jon Carter said he thinks all questions raised by New England states “really slowed FEMA down. All the congressional folks who are hearing these issues are questioning them.”

Massachusetts and Rhode Island towns received their preliminary maps around the same time as Maine; New Hampshire towns only recently received its maps.

Carter, who was at the meeting in Kittery, summed up the sentiment of his fellow town and city managers succinctly. “There is a lot of frustration,” he said. “It’s almost as if FEMA has shut down. We’ve got to get something moving here.”

This article was taken from the Portsmouth Herald.