Bob Horton has an excellent article detailing some, but not all of the impacts we can expect as the new FEMA regulations hit with the force of a storm surge. And I say “not all” not because Horton isn’t thorough but because as he writes, no one knows the full implications of all this yet (and as he notes, because our town keeps our emergency plans in a safe, secure location under double secret super probation). It will be worse, however, not better than you can imagine.
Houses sitting on stilts or columns well above ground level, perhaps no new building at all allowed in certain flood zones, and more widespread evacuations during certain storms are some of the policy implications from new maps that will govern coastal development starting in July.
For example, the northernmost concession at Greenwich Point that was severely damaged by the October hurricane now sits some 6 to 8 feet below the height required by federal regulations. And the Byram Pool, which is under consideration for replacement and improvement, rests 4 feet below the new minimum elevation, raising doubts about the wisdom (or legality) of proceeding with that much-needed new facility.
For owners of private homes or commercial buildings, the new flood zones pose serious obstacles to major renovations. As explained on the FEMA website, existing buildings will have to be brought into compliance (raised above base line flood level) once the value of improvements or restoration exceeds 50 percent of the assessed value as of 1986. And, this is a cumulative total, meaning the town will have to consider the value of any and all improvements made since 1986 when granting building permits.
It seems that even relatively minor improvements will mean property owners will have to raise entire buildings to be in compliance.
It is important to understand what “raising a house or building” means. Again, according to FEMA, the lowest floor, including a basement floor, has to be at least 1 foot above the base flood level. So using the Greenwich Point concession building as an example, the floor would have to rest on stilts or columns 7 to 9 feet above where it is now. The space below the lowest floor has to remain open to allow for the unimpeded flow of floodwaters. No fill is allowed. Now translate that look across all affected buildings, and you get a village of houses on stilts towering over the neighborhood, which is a very different look indeed.
FEMA has a very big stick with which to enforce compliance: flood insurance. That agency sets insurance rates, and the less compliant a town is, the more expensive flood insurance becomes for individual property owners. And in cases where a town is deemed to have far too many non-compliant buildings, FEMA can deny flood insurance coverage altogether. Just try selling a house in a coastal zone when flood insurance is not available. There is not a bank in the land that will lend money in that case.
The expanded flood zones have serious ramifications for emergency management plans as well. However, I have no idea how it will impact Greenwich emergency plans because those plans are a well-guarded secret. We just have to trust that our elected officials and the town emergency management director are adjusting the plan accordingly. If that seems ridiculous, I agree with you.