Big Flood Changes Ahead For Coastal Property Owners; OC Against Hiring Firm To Endorse Flood Appeals

OCEAN CITY – The City Council decided this week against contracting with an engineering consultant firm to represent the city when, or if, property owners appeal to the federal government over proposed changes to flood insurance rates.

The decision means Ocean City will remain the middle man between property owners and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) when it comes to individuals appealing proposed changes to the Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM).

The Town of Ocean City received a letter in February from Flood Insurance and Mitigation Administration Chief of Engineering Managment Branch Luis Rodriguez explaining the 90-day appeal process for the proposed changes in the FIRM and Flood Insurance Study (FIS).

According to the letter, the proposed flood hazard determinations, if finalized, will become the basis for the floodplain management measures that Ocean City must adopt or show evidence of having in effect to remain qualified for participation in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). However, FEMA will provide community officials and citizens an opportunity to appeal the proposed flood hazard information presented on the preliminary FIRM and FIS report.

During the 90-day appeal period, any owner or leasee of property in Ocean City who believes their rights will be adversly affected by the proposed flood hazard determinations may appeal to the Town of Ocean City, or to an agency the town publicly designates. The appeal data must then be submitted to FEMA. Only appeals of the proposed flood hazard determinations supported by scientific or technical data can be considered before FEMA makes its final flood hazard determination.

The letter furthers, if FEMA does not receive an appeal or other formal comment from the Town of Ocean City in its own name, they will consolidate and review appeal data and comments from individuals the town will forward, and FEMA will make such modifications to the proposed flood hazard information presented on the FIRM and in the FIS report as may be appropriate.

If the Town of Ocean City decides to appeal in its own name, all individuals’ appeal data must be consolidated into one appeal by the town, because in this event FEMA is required to deal only with the local government as representative of all local interests.

Director of Planning & Community Development Matt Margotta explained to the Mayor and City Council during Monday evening’s regular session, FEMA has created an update to the FIRM affecting Ocean City, as well as completed a public review process for the proposed updated maps. The advertised 90-day appeal period is open until June 12.

The current process being followed is the Town of Ocean City receives appeal applications from Ocean City property owners and sends them to FEMA Region III for review. However, the town can choose to endorse pre-FIRM appeal applications from Ocean City property owners by hiring an engineering consultant firm to evaluate and endorse applications.

Margotta did not recommend the town endorse pre-FIRM appeal applications due to city staff not being certified to evaluate any applications.

According to Margotta, the town has not received any pre-FIRM appeal applications to date but acknowledged several property owners from north Ocean City, more specifically 143rd to 146th streets, areas proposed to be rezoned as A0, will most likely have a significant increase in flood insurance costs and therefore are likely planning on submitting an appeal.

“We do not believe there is anything wrong with the data that FEMA used to make its determination,” City Manager David Recor said of staff’s recommendation to pass on hiring an engineering consultant. “We believe that $100 million in beach nourishment and protection measures for the beach have been successful and the information that FEMA relied on to make its determination is in large part due to that investment. Their determinations have to be scientifically or technically incorrect and if a property owner believes that data is flawed it is their responsibility to fill out an application consistent with the criteria that is outlined in the statute. We will facilitate that process but not are recommending that we be responsible for challenging that data.”

Councilman Joe Mitrecic pointed out the number of applications to be received is unknown, and if the town chose to hire an engineering consultant, it will leave an open check, most likely to reach at least $15,000 per application.

“It will open the town up to a huge liability and the costs could get out of control, as well as think about spending more time with one property over another property. It will be hard for the staff to regulate how well the consultant is doing his or her job,” Acting City Solicitor Heather Stansbury said.

Council Secretary Mary Knight made a motion to accept the recommendation to not endorse pre-FIRM appeal applications, and the council voted 5-0, with Councilman Dennis Dare absent and Pillas abstained to approve.

There were no public comments taken prior to deliberation but during the citizen comment portion of the meeting a few north Ocean City property owners took the opportunity to speak to the matter.

“According to the letter that was written to Mayor Meehan, it has to be done by presenting scientific evidence, which would be an engineer to determine if FEMA is correct or incorrect, and we have a ballpark estimate of about $12,000 for that fee,” property owner Robert Chertkof said. “Basically what I heard earlier was this council saying they don’t want to spend any money on an engineer, which is concerning because we are taxpayers, and it seems to be you should be our sword and our shield to help us or defend us, whatever the case may be, instead of say we are on our own.”

Chertkof’s neighbor, Gwyn Tober, stated she is has been paying $312 a year for 23 years for flood insurance but the new map with raise her insurance to at least $7,000 a year.

“That is huge,” she said. “That is a lot of money and if I go to sell that property I have to disclose that to a buyer. That is affecting all of those people. It is not a simple issue.”

Mac Balcom of Ocean Place Condominiums on 146th Street, said his association has begun its own appeal process by hiring an engineering consultant. He reported not many, if any, Ocean City property owners know of the changes being proposed.

“I was here in November talking about this, and I was kind of shooed away I felt, and the discussion that you had tonight should have been held in November in my opinion,” he said. “When does the public find out about this? I think that is where the City Council could have played a better role in getting the word out and possibly present a unified face, even if it wasn’t hiring an engineer.”

Insurance Management Group, Inc., President Reese Cropper requested the council challenge FEMA on risk factors used to develop the proposed map and report.

“I don’t think the federal government does everything right … we all seem reluctant to go to the federal powers and challenge what they do, and that is what I have seen happening in this city,” he said. “This FEMA report does not take into consideration some risks that I think you should think about.”

According to Cropper, the report does not take into account storms such as the the winter storm of 1992 that happened overnight. The storm breached Assateague Island wiping out Snug Harbor, and Ocean City’s dunes were decimated. As well as, does not take into consideration Superstorm Sandy in 2012 because the study began prior to. The study did use the storms of Isabel, Ida and Ernesto that were not a direct hit on Ocean City.

“To me that says we need to pull back and re-evaluate this,” he said. “I think this map is flawed not taking Sandy in consideration of anything. FEMA should withdraw the map for now and look at what Superstorm Sandy’s effects would have been on this city.”

Cropper furthered the study focused on the dunes in Ocean City but doesn’t take into consideration the bay or the ocean rising.

“Most of Ocean City is being rezoned into a X zone, which means that there are going to be buildings out there that are not going to be required to buy flood insurance … it is the most ludicrous thing that we live on a barrier island and we are not going to be required to buy flood insurance. It just doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “I think it is the city’s duty to challenge FEMA … what are you going to do when there is a storm and you have most people uninsured? You’re going to have blight, you’re going to have people that walk away from their properties, you going to have a tax base that is going to go down, you are going to have real estate go down in value, and you’re going to have property taxes that go way down in revenue… This is the only city that I know of on the coast line that has been relaxed in flood zones. Something is not right.”

Recor responded Cropper doesn’t need to look any further than to the coastal towns to the south.

“There is an active FBI investigation on these changes in coastal communities and the amount of money that is going to the National Flood Insurance Program, so there are plenty of examples out there, such that it is suspicious,” Recor said.