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New FEMA flood zone map burdens landowners

The federal government decides to flex its muscles and coerce individual citizens to purchase insurance. Citizens complain. Sound like the national debate over health care? Guess again. This scenario is taking place across the country as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) newly released maps shifts many new properties into flood zones with costly impacts. Many properties — which some owners say have never experienced flooding even during last year’s destructive hurricanes — now complain of declining property values and the added burden of taking out flood insurance. In Dutchess County, 1,147 new properties have been added to the flood zone map, including seven in Washington and 35 in Pleasant Valley.

Why the change? FEMA is often called in by state and local municipalities to help remedy the damage when flood damage occurs. Federal funds then become available to repair and rehabilitate. New York state was hit particularly hard last year. In an effort to mitigate future expenses FEMA sought to revise its floodplain maps to identify properties subject to flooding so that flood insurance might be put in place. Banking institutions require properties with mortgages where properties are used as collateral on loans to take out policies for flood insurance if the property falls within the FEMA-generated flood-zone map. The more properties covered by flood insurance would seem to translate into less federal assistance from FEMA, thereby saving taxpayer money. The injustice is that a number of the properties that FEMA added into floodplain zones don’t seem to belong there. The result therefore is an unforeseen and costly new burden on property owners.

Take for example a resident of Wappingers who approached me in my capacity as an attorney. He lives atop a hill from which across the street is a small lake. Under the new FEMA maps his property is now located in a flood zone. He received a letter from his bank telling him he needed to take out flood insurance for which he was quoted $2,000 per year. His property value is now estimated to decrease by $50,000 he claims. When he complained to his town he was told that local governments had the FEMA maps “rammed down their throats,” under the threat that if they did not accept the new maps that future FEMA aid would be withheld. To his credit, Fishkill Supervisor Bob Lacolla has been resisting and urging his fellow supervisors and mayors to do the same.

I spoke with Supervisor Lacolla and he shared with me how he has been urging Congressional leaders to intervene. He has also asked that Congress legislate a two-year grace period for affected properties to give them time to either fight the new maps or to save up for the new unexpected insurance costs. To this end I drafted a letter requesting intervention by our national representatives that was signed by county legislators at our August meeting. I also suggested tax deductions for property owners who choose to fight it.

To those properties affected, they have the option to hire an engineer and surveyor — at their own expense — to develop a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA) that will possibly remove their property from the flood zone. This study determines the actual base flood elevation on particular properties using engineering analysis, hydraulic studies and other acceptable methodologies. In contrast FEMA’s research merely used approximate figures based on contour lines. Property owners exploring the LOMA option are encouraged to shop around. The Wappingers resident mentioned above was initially given a quote of $10,700 to complete this study. A second opinion rendered a quote of $3,100.

Despite presumed good intentions to control costs, the federal government’s new flood zone mapping, when combined with banking requirements for insurance, is onerous and expensive to unexpectant property owners. Affected landowners should be given not only a grace period, but tax deduction benefits for costs incurred in fighting the claim, and ultimately the option to assume the risk by opting out. Unfortunately, individual rights have once again been eclipsed by the so-called safety net of government intrusion.

Michael N. Kelsey represents the people of Amenia, Washington, Stanford, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com.