South Bethany flooding Oct 2015

Located between beach and bay, South Bethany is expected to flood during major storm and tidal events, which means higher flood insurance premiums. Here, flooding occurs on the west side of the sand dunes during a storm on Oct. 3, 2015.

South Bethany’s floodplain maps have gone back and forth for years now, between re-writes, lawsuits and more. The most recent attempt at stabilizing the official numbers was recently halted midway through the process, possibly due to procedural issues.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has halted or rescinded the two most recent Letters of Map Revision (LOMRs). One, for the west side of town, had already been enacted in December, and the new east-side proposal had just begun the official 90-day appeals process in February.

However, the proposed updates would have created a more stringent floodplain designation (used to determine flood risk, and therefore, flood insurance rates) in some places, and townspeople expect that those calculations and numbers will not change in the reissued LOMRs, coming perhaps later this year.

As a result, members of the FEMA Ad Hoc Committee are proposing that the Town hire a consultant to review the numbers and methodology. The thought process is: if they can get a professional engineer to review the numbers now — or at least show FEMA that they’re paying attention — perhaps it will influence the federal agency’s decision.

The committee is drafting a letter to the town council, reviewing the history of South Bethany’s floodplain numbers and their idea for a consultant.

“I am willing to as chairman of the committee to take this forward to Town Council,” said committee chairperson and Council Member Randy Bartholomew. “The thing I want to make sure of … is that this needs to be the for the whole town,” so both LOMRs would be reviewed, for fairness’ sake.

Indeed, town council members will need more information to consider such an investment. Many remember when the Town paid tens of thousands of dollars for consultants to study the 2014/2015 maps.

“They felt the chance was winning the appeal was 50/50 at best, and even if you ran the analysis, what work they had done, [their calculations] would probably fall between the 11- and 13-foot range,” Mayor Tim Saxton said of the measurement FEMA continues to propose for South Bethany oceanfront homes. “We already did this once and found out. So, do we want to spend that money again?”

“Just because there was some procedural problem, I would doubt there’s going to be a change in the science, so — no. No more money,” said Council Member Carol Stevenson, and most of the others agreed.

Bartholomew said he similarly hesitates to spend any more money unless the whole town could benefit, not just one neighborhood.

But the mayor said he welcomed the ad hoc committee to bring forward more information for town council to consider.

Some people are still angry that, six years ago, a retired council member had individually questioned FEMA’s one-time easing of restrictions, which caused FEMA to look more closely — and then designate South Bethany as a higher flood risk (resulting in higher insurance premiums).

Several of those people now serve on the FEMA Ad Hoc Committee.

“There was no ownership by the Town for what they did that caused the problem. That’s another thing that makes me angry. They’re kind of throwing it under the rug the rug … for what they did. If they had just accepted that initial FIRM [years ago] by FEMA, we would not be having this conversation today,” said committee member Maria Vershel.

“What we want is equitable treatment, for Sandpiper Village to be treated the same as Middlesex [Beach]. The town borders it; it’s no different. The same analysis should apply to South Bethany as to Bethany. … It was very frustrating,” said committee member Ed Bintz, who previously sued FEMA, which resulted in the rescinding of maps more than year ago.

“The engineering reports that came back could not support the 10-foot level,” Bartholomew said, but Bintz re-emphasized the perceived inequality of the calculation methodology from town to town (i.e. how quickly the dunes erode over time).

Committee members said they believe the consulting cost could be less than $10,000 for a limited and defined review of the documents. (Additional costs would come if the Town pursues further analysis toward an appeal.)

FEMA gets ducks in a row

FEMA did not spell out exactly what caused them to pause the process in February. However, after town officials noted that they hadn’t received FEMA’s preliminary 30-day notice and review for the maps and methodology, FEMA rescinded the LOMRs and announced that it will “send a separate letter to your community to officially document the modeling methods used and provide a 30-day period for your community to consult on the appropriateness of the modeling.

“Subsequently, FEMA will also officially provide a second 30-day period for your community to review the draft firm database for this proposed LOMR. After both 30-day reviews have passed, FEMA will reissue this LOMR under a new case number,” which comes with more legal notices and new 90-day appeal period.

Saxton said he had gotten the impression that this procedural issue has impacted a number of recent LOMRs, not just the two in South Bethany.

Staff Reporter

A staff member for 10 years, through mid-2021, Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment and more. An IRHS and Washington College alum, she has rappelled, assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.