Island County commissioners considering challenge of federal flood area findings

The Island County commissioners are considering hiring an Edmonds engineering firm to help stave off new or increased flood-insurance premiums for waterfront landowners.

The board will decide this month whether to pay $43,000 to Coast & Harbor Engineering to help determine whether to appeal some proposed federal determinations of flood boundaries along parts of the county’s shoreline, it decided during a Wednesday meeting.

“We need to be sure there was no error in methodology” made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, when it issued revised federal flood insurance rate maps this summer, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said.

“The new maps’ flood boundaries for the east side of Whidbey and the west side of Camano are so counterintuitive that they suggest there’s a problem,” said Hiller West, director of current-use planning and community development.

West and his staff spoke with Coast & Harbor Thursday to discuss hiring the firm to study possible errors in FEMA’s methodology. The meeting went well, and West plans to recommend that the board hire the company, he said.

The new maps’ flood boundaries for the east side of Whidbey and the west side of Camano are so counterintuitive that they suggest there’s a problem.”

– Hiller West,

current-use and community development director

Island County

Island County this summer sent postcards to 4,260 residents who might be affected by the changed maps, which in general reflect higher water levels and thus greater damage of flooding — and consequently the need for more county residents to buy flood insurance.

“A lot of property owners are concerned about the economics,” Price Johnson said. “Quite a few beachfront communities are affected.”

The new maps, which were issued free to any waterfront homeowner who requested one, show the elevation one would have to build at to avoid flooding during the most violent storm likely to occur within a century, informally referred to as a 100-year flood. Areas that received “questionable” flood-hazard designations from FEMA include Glendale, Hidden Beach, Possession Beach, Sandy Point and Sunlight Beach, according to a presentation made in September by David Simpson, an engineer with Coast & Harbor, to a group of Realtors.

The county must adopt floodplain-management measures based on FEMA’s flood-hazard determinations in order to remain qualified for the National Flood Insurance Program. A county must be qualified in order for its residents to buy flood insurance from that program, though flood insurance is also available commercially.

In an Oct. 15 letter, FEMA told the county that it has until roughly Jan. 28 to appeal the new flood-hazard determinations on behalf of resident property owners or renters. Owners may also file appeals on their own within that period.

The only permissible basis for such appeals is information indicating that FEMA’s determinations are “scientifically or technically incorrect,” according to the letter. Appeals received after the 90-day period will be considered, though even if won they will not impel FEMA to immediately change the new insurance requirements, the agency said.

Coast & Harbor may be hired without the county’s having gone through a competitive bidding process because of these tight appeal deadlines. West said the firm is known to staff to be competent.