Highland News Leader

Engineers to pour over numbers as Highland readies for flood map scrap

Highland has hired an engineering firm to perform calculations to check against those of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as the city deals with the agency over new flood risk assessment maps.

“There have been cities all over the country who are trying to fight this. Whenever you’re going to battle with a federal agency, it’s a desperate struggle. Without the study, we are basically giving up in advance,” said city attorney John Long.

The city council approved a contract on Jan. 3 with Oates Associates Inc., a Collinsville-based engineering and architectural firm, to evaluate FEMA’s working maps of potential flood plains along the Lindenthal and Laurel creek branches in Highland.

FEMA reassesses areas and their potential for flooding periodically, and Highland is currently being looked at as part of the agency’s Map Modernization Program. Updates to the flood risk maps are being done, not only to convert old paper maps to digital, but to update calculations to include changes in topography, as well as new developments.

But city officials fear the federal government may go too far. According to the Highland City Assistant Manager Lisa Peck, the current FEMA drafts have raised the 100-year-flood area by eight feet. Such an increase would affect about 200 additional parcels in the flood area. These parcels include the hospital and a corner of the high school.

Highland City Manager Mark Latham said that it is imperative for the city to find strong evidence to alter the government’s drafts before they are finalized.

“These are not final matters,” Latham said. “They are still in the working phase; that is why we want to do everything we can to make sure that we have done our due diligence to make sure that the property values in that area do not go down.”

The maps, once officially adopted by FEMA, would be the final word on areas considered to be within risk of a 100-year flood event. A change in flood-risk status would mean homeowners and businesses with mortgages would be required to buy flood insurance at substantially increased rates, which may not be affordable for many. Undeveloped property within the designated flood plain would face many hurdles to alleviate flood risk before any construction could begin.

In addition, any new structure built within what would be deemed as a Special Flood Hazard Area would be subject to new building standards, including elevation requirements and construction limits, which would add significant cost and likely deter future development.

The services provided by Oates, which has worked with the city on numerous public works projects over the last 30 years, will consist of data collection from prior studies, verification of flood events with residents and public agencies, coordination of data with FEMA, field survey of stream cross sections and finished floor elevations, development of flow rates, evaluation of options to reduce flood impacts and preparation of reports and exhibits.

“The study is not intended to ‘disprove’ FEMA’s maps, but to provide more detailed analysis of the flood elevations and more accurate mapping of the flood limits,” said the project manager for the study, Steve Keil.

According Keil, the study will have three components.

The first goal will be to evaluate the FEMA flood study by checking drainage areas, flow rates and conducting field surveys. Latham said this will give the city actual data to make a case to refute the FEMA mapping.

“Typically, FEMA does not get on the ground to check the elevations,” Latham said. “This way we can put a case together on actual elevation shots.”

Keil said that if the findings of the study are in agreement with FEMA, the second part of the study will focus on finding options that could be employed to reduce flooding potential. The third part would be specific designs of the options identified.

Keil estimates that the study will take between six to 12 months to complete, at a cost of $127,000. According to Latham, the study will be paid for with tax increment financing (TIF) funds.

Highland city officials hosted a public hearing Aug. 23 on FEMA’s new working maps. City officials said they will host another public meeting soon, but a date has not yet been set. According to Peck, the portion of the public that is believed to be affected by the new changes will be notified of the new meeting date.

Other Action

City will fight tax appeal on medical building

The council authorized filing paperwork with the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board for the city attorney to intervene against an appeal by Highland Healthcare Investors.

According to Latham, when the new St. Joseph’s Hospital was being developed, the Highland Healthcare Investor group invested and built the privately owned medical office building attached to the hospital. To assist the development, the city pledged a portion of the money needed to build the office that was equal to the property taxes that would be paid, about $3 million, Latham said.

If the Highland Healthcare Investors is successful in its appeal for a lower assessment, it would mean less property taxes collected on the property. If the property taxes are lowered, the repayment of city funds used to finance the building will be affected, Latham said.

This is the second year that the city has fought an appeal by Highland Healthcare Investors. Last year, the city won the case against Highland Healthcare Investors on the county level, but Highland Healthcare Investors has now appealed to the state.

Lighting bid awarded

The council approved awarding a bid for the installation of street lights on Sportsman Road.

After improving the section of Sportsman Road between Frank Watson Parkway and Plaza Drive with paving, improved storm drains and underground electric and fiber wiring, Highland city officials decided that street lights would also need to be installed.

The initial budget for the light installment was $30,000. The bid was awarded to Graybar Electric in Jefferson, Mo., which had the low bid at $31,787.50.