NEWFANE—Although one would assume most Windham County residents are well-versed in the intricacies of flood plains after Tropical Storm Irene, nearly five years later residents and town officials are still in need of some catching up.
And, with flooding on many people’s minds — especially when they seek to sell or insure a home assigned within a flood plain — questions frequently abound in Selectboard meetings, often with no clear answer until someone reaches out to an outside expert.
As The Commons reported in the Jan. 20 edition, Newfane’s Flood Plain Administrator Merle Tessier had complained at the Jan. 4 Selectboard meeting that the town’s tax maps and the state’s flood plain maps do not always jibe. As Tessier and the board discussed, some homeowners are reportedly having a hard time getting flood insurance, and some cannot sell their property.
Less than a month later, in a presentation that may as well have been called, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Flooding (But Were Afraid to Ask),” Floodplain Manager John Broker-Campbell, who works with the state’s Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) in its River Corridor and Floodplain Protection Program, attempted to set the flooding record straight.
Flood plains 101
In his presentation at the Feb. 1 Selectboard meeting, Broker-Campbell explained, with the help of projected slides, exactly what flooding and floodplains are, and why anyone should care.
One of the slides clarified the concept of the “100-year flood.” It is not a flood that happens every 100 years; it is an area that has a 1-percent chance every year of flooding.
Another illustration showed a graphic of a flood plain, and, as Broker-Campbell noted, “what most people think of as the flood plain... is the flood fringe.” This portion of a flood plain is on the outer border of a floodway, which is “where the water is moving with velocity during a high-water event.”
The floodway, Broker-Campbell said, is “typically an area where you don’t want to permit new structures. Lots of bad things happen in that area."
“It’s critical to realize the flood plain is comprised of the flood fringe and the floodway,” he said, noting, “town regulations look at them as distinct zones [with] different standards for each zone."
And although some property owners might balk at having their land assigned in a flood plain, Broker-Campbell suggested it was for everyone’s benefit.
When an area is designated as a “river corridor,” he said, it means “we recognize that this is the area that the river needs and we don’t want folks in Newfane... putting additional investments in an area that’s a known hazard location."
But, Broker-Campbell noted, garages, sheds, or additions to existing buildings may be permissible, “but no new primary structures."
Newfane’s flood maps, Broker-Campbell explained, were created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 2007. When property owners find their homes or other structures lie in possibly disputed floodplain territory, they can appeal to FEMA, most commonly through a Letter of Map Amendment.
“The town should err on the side of caution,” Broker-Campell said. If a property is close to the flood plain border, he said the zoning administrator should say, “you’re in until you can prove to me you’re out."
“It’s widely-accepted practice,” he noted.
Broker-Campbell also assured the audience, “you can build in a floodplain — you just have to get a permit,” and prove that you can meet certain flood-mitigation standards.
“There are 45 structures in [Newfane’s] mapped flood hazard zone,” Broker-Campbell said, noting some of them may be buildings other than homes. The data, he said, came from the list of E-911 addresses, so “anything with an address” is included. E-911 is shorthand for Enhanced 911, which connects wireless users with emergency service.
But, he said only 5 percent of structures in the flood hazard zone have flood insurance, and there are 14 flood insurance policies written in all of Newfane.
“Due to the fact that Newfane is an active participatory member of the National Flood Insurance Program, everybody has access to flood insurance,” Broker-Campbell said, adding if the flood “is not large enough to warrant FEMA coming to town,” this insurance will pay for flood damage.
Cost is a barrier to some residents seeking flood insurance, Board Chair Todd Lawley and Town Clerk Gloria Cristelli noted. They pointed out that, post-Irene, some rates have doubled.
The increase in natural disasters has forced the feds to raise the rates to what they should be from an actuarial perspective, Broker-Campbell explained. Before the increase, the flood insurance program was losing money, he added.
Administrative Assistant Shannon Meckle told Broker-Campbell that some property owners claim their land or structures are now in the floodplain, and this is a new assignation for them. She questioned how this is possible, because the last town reappraisal, and the most recent FEMA maps, were done in 2007.
“How can people say all of a sudden, ‘We’re in the flood plain?’” Meckle asked.
“They can’t,” Broker-Campbell assured her.
He surmised the confusion may arise from property owners’ new-found realization, post-Irene, that their land is, in fact, in a flood plain. Pre-Irene, they may not have had a reason to think about it.
For property-owners trying to make sense of where their home is in relation to the floodplain, Broker-Campbell suggested visiting the ANR’s Natural Resources Atlas [anrmaps.vermont.gov/websites/anra], which he said anyone can access online. He described it as “user-friendly."
If individual homeowners, zoning administrators, and other town officials have questions, they can reach out to the ANR.
“We’re here. We’re happy to help,” Broker-Campbell said.