Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Revisions in Flood Maps Draw Increased Scrutiny

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Revisions in Flood Maps Draw Increased Scrutiny

Article excerpt

SOUTH COUNTY: Questions about definitions of 'high risk,' and worries over costs

The methods used to add another 42,700 Sarasota County properties to high-risk flood zones are coming under increasing scrutiny as a 90-day appeal period for the new flood maps begins Friday.

The city of Venice already has submitted a formal request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency asking officials there to review how certain flooding -- primarily along streets and drainage ditches -- has been classified.

Better mapping of inadequate stormwater drainage systems is one of the prime reasons the county's high-risk zones are expanding so dramatically. But some local officials question whether the relatively minor flooding that typically occurs from these overflows should be treated as a major hazard that requires people to buy flood insurance and submit to stiffer development rules.

"It's primarily shallow street flooding," said Venice city engineer Kathleen Weeden, adding that for insurance and construction regulation reasons, "it would be better for our residents not to have a flood zone immediately adjacent to their property."

Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines said he has similar concerns.

"Is that really the flooding that you're worrying about?" Hines said, questioning whether an event where "my grass is wet for a few days" should be a high priority for FEMA.

The issue is a "big deal" because of the potential costs that homeowners could incur both from flood insurance requirements and lost property values, Hines said.

"We've got to get more information and try to work with FEMA so we don't kill our economy with this," he said. "You could take whole neighborhoods and potentially make them unsellable."

The Southwest Florida Water Management District -- which contracted with FEMA to create Sarasota County's new flood maps -- is already working to address questions about whether some of the high-risk zones should be rolled back, said J.P. Marchand, who is managing the project for the district.

Marchand said the maps accurately show where flooding will occur, but exactly how that flooding is classified is open to interpretation. Some areas where less than a foot of standing water is expected could be downgraded to lower-risk zones.

"It still tells people this area has the potential to flood but it doesn't raise the same insurance issues," Marchand said.

Stormwater drainage

The question of spillover flooding from drainage ditches and canals is especially important in North Port, where 22,614 additional properties are proposed to be shifted into high-risk zones, a tenfold increase.

Most of the city's new high-risk zones are the result of inadequate stormwater drainage systems.

Hines said there is no doubt that flooding is a problem in North Port along certain streets, but he added that it rarely affects people's homes. He also said that dramatically expanding flood zones in the community could have major ramifications.

The city has traditionally been a low-cost alternative for people seeking affordable housing. Mandatory flood insurance could make many properties less desirable, hurting the real estate recovery in a community that is just starting to rebound from a big slide in property values during the Great Recession.

"Suddenly, bam, we're back in the recession," Hines said.

Such concerns led to a series of packed public forums on the new flood maps last week.

More than 1,300 people attended three meetings in Sarasota, Venice and North Port last week.

The South County meetings drew especially large crowds, including more than 600 people in Venice and more than 500 in North Port. Whether that will translate into a large number of map appeals is unclear.

Anyone can file an appeal, but there are major hurdles that make the process difficult for average homeowners. Scientific evidence must be submitted demonstrating that the mapping process was inaccurate. …

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