Bridgewater Residents Say Flood Rules Murky

Posted: September 5, 2013

HARRISONBURG — Questions abound about how floodwater regulations could affect some Bridgewater homeowners.

Town officials recently received notification of violations at several properties that must be addressed for federal insurance purposes.

They say regulators at the Federal Emergency Management Administration have suddenly switched the rules of the game, but a state inspector argues that nothing has actually changed.

It’s one point of contention to arise since a routine flood plain inspection that was conducted earlier this year.

A recent, somewhat heated conference call between Bridgewater representatives and an official with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation ended in a stalemate, with both sides agreeing to disagree about the matter.

Bridgewater officials believe FEMA is forcing them to retroactively enforce new standards on seven houses, including some that are decades old.

Either that, or regulators have suddenly changed the way they enforce the rules, according to Town Superintendent Bob Holton.

Holton outlined recent changes at FEMA and how they’re affecting Bridgewater in the latest issue of The Current, the town’s monthly newsletter.

Previously, town officials said violations have been found at nine homes, but that’s been revised downward.

The town’s biggest concern cited in The Current is the alleged requirement to retrofit existing, previously approved buildings under the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act.

But Melissa Hall, flood plain program specialist with the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said Holton’s assessment of the situation is inaccurate.

“We’re not trying to make them go back and comply with new regulations,” she said.

DCR serves as a liaison to facilitate a good working relationship between local governments and FEMA, Hall said.

“There hasn’t really been any change at FEMA [that’s affecting Bridgewater],” she said.

Hall acknowledges that Biggert-Waters has language that would target homes that previously had been exempt from new regulations because they had been grandfathered in.

But, she says, those rules haven’t been adopted by the agency, at least in part because enforcement would be difficult and costly.

What’s happening now is nothing new, Hall said.

As part of Bridgewater’s participation in FEMA’s flood insurance program, inspectors visit properties in the flood plain every five years to check for compliance.

Agents from DCR go ahead of FEMA so that if violations are identified, property owners can rectify them before federal inspectors arrive, Hall said.

Common issues include utility lines not being elevated enough, foundations with improper venting and unelevated propane tanks.

Nothing new is being applied during this round of inspections, and the enforcement hasn’t changed either, Hall said.
“It’s all pretty consistent,” she said.

Holton, however, says if what Hall says is true, then they wouldn’t even be having the conversation.

“To me, if we’re asked to go back and contact these property owners and make them improve their property up to current standards, obviously something has changed,” he said.

Bridgewater officials see this latest development as part of increasingly aggressive enforcement efforts by FEMA.

In recent years, the town has had to fork over tens of thousands of dollars to prove that its levee — which survived 100-year floods in 1985 and 1996 — is up to snuff.

“It’s that kind of enforcement that’s really got us concerned,” Bridgewater Zoning Administrator David Nichols said, “because it does in fact impact our budget and we have no control over it.”

Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or jhunt@dnronline.com



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