Flood Plain Updates Needed

Phase Out Of Subsidies Means Costlier Insurance

Posted: June 24, 2014

Revisions to the flood insurance map concerning the Bridgewater levee triggered a FEMA mandate, forcing Rockingham County to update its flood plain ordinance. (Photos by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)
Rockingham County will need to update its flood plain ordinance, including the area where the North and Dry rivers meet, to comply with revisions to the county’s flood insurance map.

HARRISONBURG — While the waters around Rockingham County may not be rising, residents may soon find that happening to their flood insurances rates.

Due to a recent revision of the Rockingham County Flood Insurance Rate Map, or FIRM,

a mandatory update to the county’s flood plain ordinance has been triggered.

 This update, which must be approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency by Aug. 18, is needed to bring the county into line with the minimum standards as required by the National Flood Insurance Program.

“FEMA periodically updates their model regulations,” said Lisa Perry, administrator of the county’s stormwater-management program, in an email. “So map revisions are a good opportunity for communities to ensure their …  ordinances are compliant with the latest regulations.”

The recent certification of the Bridgewater levee by FEMA triggered the revision process.

Perry notes that most of the changes that FEMA is calling for are already required by the Virginia Unified Statewide Building Code, but had not been expressly laid out in the county’s ordinance.

However, she believes that the greater impetus should be placed on adopting new regulations that would head off the higher flood insurance rates she says are on the way.

With increasing flood damage in highly populated areas, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act in 2012 to allow premiums to rise so that the true risk of high-flood areas was revealed.

Perhaps the most significant provision of Biggert-Waters was the phasing out of government subsidies to flood plain homeowners. As a result of this, some property owners saw a tenfold increase their flood insurance premiums.

After that initial sticker shock, Congress this year passed the Grimm-Waters Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, which “extended the time frame over which rates will increase,” according to Perry.

However, the very structure of the National Flood Insurance Program is problematic. Perry said that, in allowing subsidized rates, the program was “ill-prepared for catastrophic losses,” such as those seen in Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Sandy.

“Without serious program reform, the costs of keeping the program afloat falls to the general taxpayers, rather than the program being able to sustain itself,” Perry said.

With government subsidies hiding the true costs of building and residing in flood plains, combined with large payouts after devastating storms, the National Flood Insurance Program was more than $24 billion in debt as of last July, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Even with the reprieve brought by Grimm-Waters, homeowners will eventually see their flood insurance rates affected.

With almost 20 percent of Rockingham County homes at risk for flooding, and more than $540 million in total structure value vulnerability, Perry suggests that county officials adopt more stringent building standards and enroll in FEMA’s Community Rating System.

The Community Rating System is a voluntary program where local governments can receive credits for implementing standards that “exceed the minimum requirements for flood plain safety.”

Participation in the CRS can lead to flood insurance discounts of 5 to 45 percent for the entire jurisdiction involved.

Perry provided a hypothetical example of an owner of a home built in the flood plain 3 feet below the base flood elevation designation, who with subsidized flood insurance pays a premium of $2,968 per year now.

With the coming elimination of federal subsidies, that home’s premium would rise by 25 percent each year, so that in just five years it would reach full risk rate of $7,922 per year.

If that same home were raised to meet base flood elevation, the premium would drop to $1,722 per year.

Requiring new residential structures to be built 1 to 2 feet above a location’s BFE is just one of the new standards that Perry is recommending the county should implement in its revised flood plain ordinance.

Other regulations Perry has suggested include: requiring the use of a property’s acreage outside of flood plain area for new construction; banning the division of flood plain parcels for new homes; disallowing subdivisions from creating new home lots within a flood plain; strengthening septic-system requirements; and restricting new critical facilities, car sale lots and auto graveyards from locating in the flood plain, with existing facilities kept from expanding. 

If the county chooses to participate in the Community Rating System, FEMA would evaluate the county’s standards and “assign point values for activities and regulations that we enforce,” Perry said.

The number of points the county earns would determine what discount would be applied countywide for flood insurance premiums.

Reflecting on the inevitable controversy that government restrictions on private land use may cause, Perry said, “Flood plains are regulated because there is actual risk. …  It makes sense to avoid flood-prone areas.”

Citing the effect flood plains have on insurance rates and real estate prices, she said, “For new development, the cost of insuring structures in the flood plain alone will be a strong incentive to avoid floodplain areas. …  I’ve seen examples where up to 30 percent of home values are lost simply due to location in flood plains.”

The Rockingham County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the flood plain ordinance revisions at its July 9 meeting.

Contact Bryan Gilkerson at 574-6267 or bgilkerson@dnronline.com

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