Highland News Leader

Highland officials continue to be vexed by FEMA flood map process

This image shows how the flood plain in Highland might increase.
This image shows how the flood plain in Highland might increase. Provided image

Concerned Highland citizens trekked through a storm last week to wade through a deluge of new information inside city hall on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s new draft flood maps.

The city of Highland held a second open house-style meeting Feb 28 to help property owners learn whether or not they could be affected by FEMA’s Map Modernization Program.

“The city is appreciative to all the residents and business owners who attended this seminar with respect to their property being affected by the new FEMA maps,” Mayor Joe Michaelis said.

The Highland area is currently a focal point of the drafting stage in the federal program. The process involves surveying new developments and changes in topography to determine which properties are within the Special Flood Hazard area. According to FEMA, the designated flood hazard is the “area that would be inundated by the flood having a 1 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year (base flood).”

I’d think Noah would be floating by before the time the water came up to my house.

Howard Gunning, Highland resident

According to the city building and zoning supervisor Derek Jackson, the current drafts have tripled the original flood plain from 1986. The number parcels considered to now be at “high risk” for flooding has increased from 135 to 365.

City officials have been wary of FEMA’s reassessment of Highland because the end result could have a detrimental impact on the community. When the plans are finalized, homeowners and businesses with mortgages within the flood plain will be required to have flood insurance at increased rates, which is costly and sometimes unaffordable. New structures built within the Special Flood Hazard Area would also be subject to new building standards that would add significant cost to and could deter future development.

“That is why we are having this (meeting),” Jackson said. “We want to make sure that we are transparent so they can know … (This) makes a big impact on selling the property, investing in properties. We think it is their right to know.”

Good and bad news

At the meeting, blown up maps were displayed to help show residents if their property was within the proposed flood plain. According to Lisa Peck, Highland’s assistant city manager, about 53 people attended.

City employees manned stations where residents could have their questions answered. They were able to show attendees changes in the flood maps and gave some extra coaching to impacted owners on what happens next.

“Some residents received good news this afternoon, some received not so great news that their property is in the existing flood plain, or it has expanded into their property,” Jackson said.

Howard Gunning, a Highland resident of 23 years, was one of the people who visited Jackson’s station.

“I’d think Noah would be floating by before the time the water came up to my house,” Gunning said.

Gunning received a letter from the city that his property may be affected by the new drafts. It was concern that drew him to the seminar, but the answers he got sent him home smiling.

“Much to my relief, I am not going to be in the flood plain,” Gunning said. “In fact, they said that the floodplain is going to be actually a little bit farther away from where they thought it was going to be by my house … So I am greatly relieved. I know some other folks won’t get as good news as I did, but it was a relief to hear that in person.”

I lived there all my life. I have never seen a flood there, and I’m 66 years old. I grew up at my dad’s place. If he were still alive he would be 101, and he never saw a flood there. So I’m more worried about lightning than I am a flood.

Larry Keilbach, Highland resident

But not everyone got such good news. Larry and Kay Keilbach were two of those people. A small, pie-slice-shaped portion of the Keilbachs’ property is within the proposed flood plain, which means their whole property will be affected if the current drafts are finalized.

“I’m just here because I’m concerned,” Larry Keilbach said. “My house is in the flood plain, just a very small portion of the property, but they say, if a little is, it all is. I don’t like that the government has control to monopolize things. I don’t like how they are going about this. If it was up to the government, they would probably already have this in effect, so I am thankful that the city of Highland is working as a group to solve the issue.”

Larry Keilbach said he cannot imagine how his property would flood.

“I lived there all my life,” he said. “I have never seen a flood there, and I’m 66 years old. I grew up at my dad’s place. If he were still alive he would be 101, and he never saw a flood there. So I’m more worried about lightning than I am a flood.”

Ron and Karla Smith told a similar story.

The Smiths built their house in 1992 and have recently retired. However, according to the new drafts the back of their property is also in the proposed floodplain. While they do not have a mortgage and will not be required to buy flood insurance, Karla said that, in the future, they may want to sell to downsize, a process that would be hindered by the flood maps.

“We are concerned, only because of the resale. That’s the bottom-line,” she said. “If we go to sell our home, our property value will go down, and people will avoid buying the property. If it effects a large portion of people in Highland, that’s going to hurt the whole community with home sales … Hopefully, the city of Highland can continue their good job of fighting this. Maybe that will help us out.”

Additions to the drafts

“There’s a lot of stuff that makes absolutely no sense on these maps,” Dylan Stock, the city building inspector and code enforcer, said.

The city received the new map drafts around the end of November.

According Peck, the assistant city manager, city employees have worked countless hours to understand what the drafts mean.

“There was a ton of staff time that has gone into this,” Peck said. “Dylan basically went parcel by parcel to make sure we knew who was impacted … because we want the people to know.”

According to Peck and Stock, when the city received the drafts, the copies were vague outlines of the new flood plain and did not have any indication of individual parcels. To ensure that the city knew who was in the floodplain, Stock went through and attached all of the provided documents together to create one map. He then went lot by lot, meticulously discerning which properties were in FEMA’s crosshairs.

After the whole process, Stock had identified four single-family residences that had been added to the hazard area.

Discrepancies and unanswered questions

The examination of the drafts also lead city officials to discover certain discrepancies in the changes. And that raised some questions.

First, Stock said properties were added even though elevations in the area did not increase or decrease more than half a foot. However, the elevation by the racetrack was made higher by close to 10 inches, and by that logic, the flood area by the race track should have increased, but it decreased.

Stock noted that another questionable change centers around Highland High School. The flood plain used to cover almost all of the baseball diamonds and the area south of the high school. He said that now large chunks of the model were moved, though the elevations stayed exactly the same.

Concerning the flood area between Sycamore Street and Broadway, Peck said that the new draft map was superimposed over the wrong place, a find that made Stock laugh when he discovered it.

“That is not the only area in town, but that is the most egregious example that we have,” Peck said. “That is a credibility issue, it makes it very difficult to trust what is being depicted.”

Another area shows good news for Larry’s Tire & Battery. The area behind the business was directly where flood waters would flow, according to Stock, but the current drafts have completely removed the whole flood area, even though it is 25 to 30 feet lower than the areas being affected northwest of the business.

“Now they are saying that the water isn’t going to go there,” Peck said, “They are saying it’s going to go around it. It’s going to magically stop north and magically reappear south. But it’s just not going to go there.”

According to Peck, city officials have no idea what rational was used to make these changes, and FEMA has not provided any outreach to help them understand.

“Unfortunately, everything I have found, these discrepancies, they are smoke and mirrors,” Stock said. “They mean nothing at this point in time until we get to the preliminary maps. We have no idea when the preliminary maps are going to come — could be next month, could be a year.”

For now, all the city can do is wait to see whether another round of drafting will happen or the program starts preliminary phases before finalization.

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