Ed Bintz was excited to save money on flood insurance when FEMA planned to lower the base-flood elevation (BFE) of his South Bethany house from 12 to 10 feet. But that was short-lived, after a letter from a member of the town council prompted FEMA officials to reevaluate the land — and raise the BFE to 13 feet.
“I really don’t think Ocean Drive homeowners have any idea. I kind of stumbled on this with my surveyor,” Bintz told the council on Dec. 12.
BFE is the elevation to which floodwater are expected to rise during a 100-year flood. For years, Ocean Drive had a BFE of 12 feet. Houses had to be built to that elevation or risk even higher flood insurance premiums.
But in re-drawing its Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) in August of 2013, FEMA changed the oceanfront land in South Bethany to BFE 10 feet. Under that measure, when the maps become effective in 2015, houses could be built lower, or people could save more insurance money because their house is suddenly several feet above BFE.
But earlier this year, Town Councilman George Junkin wrote what he called an “inquiry” into FEMA’s BFE calculation method, suspecting an error might have been made. Junkin’s letter said he felt the oceanfront should return to VE-12, and that a southern chunk of land should not become AE-7, but remain AO-2.
Meanwhile, having heard that FEMA would lower the BFE, Bintz looked for public notices and meeting agendas on the issue, but he never found any update until the autumn Zephyr newsletter from the Town informed residents that the oceanfront BFE would increase.
“South Bethany together with DNREC pointed out to FEMA that zones near Ocean Drive were probably not accurately modeled,” read the Town newsletter. “Historically, during nor’easters, oceanfront homes, at an elevation of 12 feet NAVD, have seen repetitive damage. Some homes were even raised by FEMA to reduce their risk of damage.”
‘All we did was ask a question’
“We didn’t do anything but supply historical information. For them to go and say it should be lowered — it just defied logic,” said South Bethany Mayor Pat Voveris. “All we did was say, ‘Hey — you had this at a much higher point.’”
Junkin’s letter included historical photos of flood damage, elevation data and backup support from DNREC’s Michael Powell.
FEMA responded in mid-August that Junkin’s letter had been treated as an official appeal.
Voveris explained the situation: “Council never took any formal action on the matter, but as chairman of Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge [Committee], Councilman Junkin investigated. … He discussed the issue with both DNREC and FEMA and submitted historical documentation to FEMA.”
“It has essentially been 12 for a long time. Could they re-look at it and tell us why it should be 10 rather than 12?” Junkin said of his inquiry. “They took that information as an appeal. It wasn’t an appeal. It was a request for them to look at the information. It was an inquiry. For an appeal to go through, it has to be signed off by a mayor.”
“And an engineer. And an attorney,” Voveris added.
“They have a very rigid process,” Voveris said. “We were very surprised that our inquiry was turned into an appeal.”
FEMA inappropriately decided not to consider South Bethany’s new dune line, Junkin said.
“I indicated I thought it should be 12, but I was asking them to re-look at their analysis,” Junkin concluded.
But when FEMA did just that, the number actually increased.
Junkin’s April letter was received within FEMA’s 90-day appeal period. After that, the Town was encouraged to notify affected homeowners within 30 days and tell FEMA if there were any other comments when that period was concluded. After that, the maps are finalized.
Bintz got the news from the newsletter email. From August until now, Voveris said, there was no public hearing or similar process, because Council did not consider the letter an appeal.
“It was not like a formalized appeal process,” said Voveris. “We felt that we were doing due diligence. We’re a council that’s working hard for our owners. We’re trying to be responsible.”
Even though FEMA now says the EBF number should be 13 feet, residents may be eligible for grandfathered 12-foot rates — but Bintz wanted the discount in his rates that he would have seen had FEMA kept the EBF at 10 feet.
“I pay $9,200 in flood insurance. “My premium would have gone down [30 to 40] percent,” Bintz said.
That could also have made his home more attractive to eventual buyers, he noted.
Bintz said he was disappointed with the Town’s seeming lack of transparency, especially when residents could be economically impacted.
“The process was flawed,” Bintz said. “I also think FEMA took advantage of the submission and ran with it.”
He said he feels that FEMA and DNREC would prefer people not live in vulnerable coastal areas, so the agencies leapt at a chance to call the letter an appeal.
Putting the ball in FEMA’s court
The council recently drafted a letter to FEMA on the issue, which Voveris wanted mailed by Dec. 19, after attorney approval.
The letter was to ask FEMA officials to remove Junkin’s letter from the administrative record and reevaluate the numbers using their own technological information.
However, the council did not request specific numbers, such as 10 or 12 feet, for a new EBF, Voveris said.
“It’s not our place. FEMA is the agency that dictates to towns like us. We’re not in that business. We don’t get to choose,” she said.
Voveris also offered an explanation of how, when FEMA’s response came in August, the council didn’t send the letter to FEMA until December.
“This letter is the result of an owner coming forward and saying he was negatively impacted by this change,” Voveris said, calling it a “good-faith gesture.”
“I’m happy the Town is writing this letter and, hopefully, we have some success with it,” Bintz said. “What happened was wrong. … A mistake happened here. And there’s a lot of damage to people on Ocean Drive.”
Ultimately, Bintz called it a flawed process, from FEMA using the inquiry as an appeal to the Town’s not offering more information or public hearings during the 30-day appeal.
Although he was mild-mannered during the council discussion of the issue, Bintz is an attorney and said he is unafraid to litigate if the Town’s letter doesn’t produce results he can accept. Bintz said he is considering legal action against the Town and FEMA, perhaps setting precedent on how FEMA handles appeals.
“I have looked into [legal] claims against the Town. I hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said.
With Bintz’s whisper of a potential lawsuit, Junkin chose not to comment on the issue after the meeting.
FEMA maps can be viewed online at http://maps.riskmap3.com/de/sussex/ for Sussex County.
In other South Bethany Town Council news:
• After years of dealing with crimes related to student vacationers, Police Chief Troy Crowson discussed the department’s planned “Junebug 2015” initiative.
From mailbox smashing to under-age consumption of alcohol, the total reported crimes were 21 in 2012, eight in 2013 and 23 in 2014. Next June, police will continue increased patrols and a zero-tolerance policy, and assist Realtors with the eviction process, if necessary.
“We’re going to contact — as we have in the past — rental agencies, homeowners that rent here,” to compile a list of potential “problem renters,” Crowson said. That includes large groups of young people.
“Last year, we really pulled out the Delaware laws regarding chaperones and their responsibility — just reminding that, if renters [bring teenagers], they are held responsible,” Crowson said.
• Although South Bethany’s major revenue sources met or exceeded expectations, according to Council Treasurer Tim Saxton, other council members asked about over-budget expenses.
Councilman Tony Caputo asked about a plan to address some budget items overspent by $1,000.
“We are looking at doing a budget amendment in February,” Saxton said.
Bank charges are at 155 percent of budgeted figures, Councilman Al Rae noted. “I worked with banks, and I worked with credit cards for years. We should not be paying that amount of fees.”
Processing fees will be offset by citizen fees, Junkin said, and South Bethany is building a payment history for the credit processing company to determine future fee rates, Voveris added.
Rae also noticed that Town functions have cost 129 percent of their budgeted amount, but Saxton said that related to retiree celebrations.
• Coastal floodplain regulations were approved for a first reading, with several adjustments. The council must approve two more readings of the proposed ordinance, on Jan. 29 (a public hearing) and Feb. 13. FEMA mandated most of the changes for towns in the National Flood Insurance Program.
• About 100 empty oyster cages are sitting on a York Road lot, Junkin reported, as by the time Center for Inland Bays got permits for the planned experiment in the canal there, it was too late in the season to get oysters in the water.
If enough complaints come in, Junkin said, the Town can press the CIB to move the cages for the winter, but he expects oysters will go in the water next summer.
The next town council workshop is Thursday, Dec. 18, at 5 p.m. at town hall.