Floodplain Anxiety in Evergreen

By Beacon Staff

EVERGREEN – Revised floodplain maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have stirred up apprehension among homeowners in Evergreen who are uncertain if their properties are now subject to increased insurance and new land-use regulations.

Some residents are arguing that their land has been wrongly added to the floodplain, a designation that has both financial and property rights implications. County officials also say FEMA’s preliminary maps have inaccuracies and are difficult to read.

Roughly 1,000 parcels were added to the 100-year floodplain, known as the Special Flood Hazard Area, in FEMA’s June map update for the Evergreen area near Kalispell. The update revises the current flood insurance rate map from 1984.

Flathead County Commissioner Pam Homlquist said multiple independent engineers have contacted her about errors in the “fuzzy” map. Holmquist spent last week gathering information and researching how to address the concerns with FEMA.

“I’m not happy with the maps at all, let’s put it that way,” Holmquist said. “They’re just poor maps. As a commissioner, I just want an accurate map so we can protect people in Evergreen as much as possible.”

It’s unclear how many of the 1,000 parcels have homes, but there will certainly be a number of homeowners who are newly subject to higher insurance rates and different land-use requirements because of their floodplain designation.

Homeowners with a federally backed mortgage will be required by their lenders to purchase flood insurance, while residents who own their homes outright can choose to bypass the insurance at their own risk, according to Jerry DeFelice, spokesperson for FEMA.

Also, property owners in the floodplain must apply for permits for certain uses on their land in accordance with the county’s floodplain and floodway management regulations. Flathead County adopted the regulations as a requirement to access federally subsidized flood insurance. County Planning and Zoning Director B.J. Grieve emphasized the county is not responsible for the map changes.

DeFelice said there will be a 90-day protest period beginning after the July 28 meeting in which property owners can state their case. DeFelice said claims must be backed with “scientific and technical data,” through a source such as an engineer, to prove they meet the base flood elevation threshold.

“If somebody can produce information that’s more detailed and accurate, we’ll build it into the map, assuming it’s valid,” DeFelice said.

Don Burton says he has data proving FEMA’s map has errors. Burton paid Sands Surveying to conduct a map study using high-tech mapping technology. The Sands map has clearly different floodplain boundaries. Burton is worried that a lot of the affected property owners aren’t fully aware of the map’s ramifications.

“It’s such an important issue,” Burton said. “I keep using the word ‘condemning’ property and I don’t think there’s any other way to put it. That’s what they’re doing, is condemning property.”

Dan Oursland, who lives on West Cottonwood Drive, believes his property has been added to the 100-year floodplain. He received a letter from FEMA, though he was unclear whether it indicated specifically that he’s on the floodplain or if he simply needs to be aware of the changes occurring around him.

DeFelice said the letter doesn’t mean anything is set in stone.

“The letter is to put people on notice that there has been a map change in their area and they’re likely going to be affected,” he said. “I don’t think it makes any kind of definitive statement.”

Like other homeowners, the FEMA notice makes Oursland uncomfortable. When he purchased the home from his siblings four years ago, the bank told him “we weren’t on” the floodplain.

“I don’t understand what the ramifications are, but if I have to pay more insurance, I’m already paying a mortgage,” Oursland said. “As far as I can tell, we’re well into the map.”

Oursland’s family owned the house during the large 1964 flood, described as a 500-year flood, and he said the water didn’t reach the home. He said some of his neighbors have the same questions.

“If we didn’t get hit in the 1964 flood, which was the 500-year flood, why should we pay the penalty for the 100-year flood?” Oursland said. “I’m sure there are a lot of other people in the same boat, but they don’t know they’re in the boat.”

The changes appear to mostly affect parcels along the Flathead River, though other waterways such as the Whitefish River, Stillwater River and Trumble Creek also appear on the map. The 100-year floodplain is defined as having a 1 percent chance of flood-level water on a property in any given year.

Homeowners who are unsure if their property has been added to the floodplain, or other residents who want to learn more about FEMA’s map, are encouraged to attend a July 28 meeting at Evergreen Middle School gym from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. FEMA and Flathead County planning officials will be there to discuss the map changes and answer questions.

Grieve, the county planning director, said his department will be at the July 28 meeting to make comments and raise concerns about FEMA’s map, including mislabeled roads and the quality of the aerial photo.

“Our office is the repository for the floodplain maps,” Grieve said. “As such we’re concerned about the quality and accuracy of the maps. We want to maximize their user friendliness.”

The remapping process stems from 2008, when a resident with concerns over FEMA’s floodplain boundaries in Evergreen contacted a senator in South Dakota. The senator initiated a congressional inquiry, which led to FEMA re-studying the Evergreen boundaries and revising both the flood insurance rate maps (FIRM) and flood insurance studies (FIS).

The mapping process has incorporated modernizing digitization of existing information as well as the addition of new information. The changes stem from a combination of better mapping technology, advanced historical data and changes in the landscape, DeFelice said.

DeFelice stresses that the update is only a preliminary map and a final document won’t be produced for some time after the 90-day protest period. If a homeowner does end up in the floodplain, there are options through the National Flood Insurance Program for reduced rates.

For more information on flood insurance, visit www.floodsmart.gov or contact Marijo Brady with FEMA at [email protected] or (303) 235-4835.

The maps can be found at www.flathead.mt.gov/planning_zoning/Drafts.php, along with a frequently asked question (FAQ) section. For more information on floodplain regulations and permit applications, visit www.flathead.mt.gov/planning_zoning/downloads.php and www.flathead.mt.gov/planning_zoning/floodplain.php, or contact Bailey Minnich with the county planning office at [email protected] or (406) 751-8200.

The county planning office only deals with regulations. Questions regarding the actual mapping process should be directed to Sarah Brush of FEMA’s regional office at [email protected] or (303) 235-4871.

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