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Travis Commissioners review new FEMA flood plain map

Wednesday, September 10, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Come hell or high water, Travis County Commissioners will pass a new flood plain map by Sept. 26, but it could come with some pain to certain homeowners.

Current flood plain regulations in Travis County are more than 30 years old, Floodplain Manager Stacey Scheffel told the Commissioners Court on Tuesday morning.  The process of updating the flood plain map with real engineering data – and overhauling the chapter in Travis County code – has been a lengthy process.

About two years ago, Travis County sent out 15,000 notices to owners of property that is either in or touches the flood plain. The appeal process to the Federal Emergency Management Agency was a year long, in and of itself. So it’s no surprise, given such a lengthy timeline, that some homeowners got caught unaware.

Frank DeVoe and Les Huff live on opposite ends of Travis County, but both were caught flatfooted on the flood plain map. Both have large pieces of land that could hold some promise for development, but the new flood plain map will mean stricter development guidelines – and higher insurance costs – on the property.

DeVoe, who had owned his 32 acres of property since 1973, said the new regulations would significantly impact what he could leave his five children. DeVoe, a retired engineer who worked for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, said it was hard for him to reconcile the determination of the flood plain issues since the engineers had never bothered to come out and survey the land.

So I don’t know how FEMA comes up with this. You know? I don’t know if they want more area or more property to be in the floodplain so they can collect more flood plain insurance money to pay the people on the Gulf Coast,” DeVoe said.  “You see what I’m saying? They want more people contributing to the insurance pool, I guess. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know what they are thinking on this is.”

Huff, a former Pflugerville City Councilman, said he understood the county’s quandary but was still a bit mystified by the map. The end of his property in the flood plain was the highest point, rather than the lowest point, on his property.

Scheffel noted that the flood plain map is really a risk map. The flood plain map is intended to predict where in the county a 100-year flood would cause a problem. Unfortunately for Huff – who said he did not get a letter on his property – the appeals process has come and gone for reclassifying his property.

But did Huff and DeVoe have much recourse at this point? Yes and no, said Scheffel. The protest period for the map had lapsed. The maps will be effective Sept. 26.

“FEMA has made that abundantly clear,” Scheffel said. “If there is an error in the maps, this gentleman — for example — may be able to provide them with survey information and do a letter map change for his property. That’s typical in the development process. I do briefly look at his property on the new maps versus the old. And it appears that the change in the floodplain on his property is due to new topographic information.”

Commissioners, and especially Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, were highly sympathetic, but the county’s hands are tied at this point. As Scheffel explained, the repercussions for being deemed “non-compliant” by FEMA would be dire.

“They will not issue any new flood insurance policies for residents of Travis County. Nor will they renew any flood insurance policies for the county. Federally backed mortgages will not be available to citizens trying to purchase real estate all over the county,” Scheffel said. “Worst case scenario, if — if it really came to all that, it’s — it’s possible they could call all federally backed mortgages due and payable.”

Commissioners did not take action at Tuesday’s meeting but gave no indication that they intended to withhold their approval at a future meeting. Scheffel was directed to meet with the two land owners to discuss their options with them.

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