Posted on Sun, Oct. 01, 2006

Floodplain maps force towns into tricky waters
Temple urged its data over FEMA's. Choosing either will hurt someone. By Diane Mastrull
Inquirer Staff Writer

Between closed roads and floating cars, swamped houses and hysterical homeowners, life hasn't been easy for community officials in the flood-plagued Pennypack Creek watershed.

On Friday, it got considerably harder. And there was barely a rain cloud in sight.

This tempest was indoors, swirling around a set of floodplain maps newly produced by a team of Temple University scientists. When the winds died down in the meeting room at the school's Fort Washington campus, municipal leaders went home to fret over a choice they'd rather not have to make:

To adopt Temple's unprecedentedly detailed floodplain maps as a guide to development and land use in their communities? Or to stick with the outdated, imprecise maps provided for three decades by the Federal Emergency Management Agency?

Depending on what each local government decides in the coming months, the value of hundreds of properties could go down, building could hit a wall in many neighborhoods, elections could turn, and town halls could be mired in litigation.

"The borough is now in a dilemma as to what map we can adopt," said Jeff Heller, zoning officer for Hatboro, where Temple researchers found 19 percent more homes and businesses at high risk of flooding than FEMA's map shows. "Do we put our municipality at risk by not following the Temple map?"

He added, "I'm not the only one who's frustrated."

The Temple maps - the subject last week of the Inquirer series "A Flood of Trouble" - were formally presented Friday to 30 town managers, zoning officials, engineers and planners from the 56-square-mile watershed, a sodden sector containing 11 municipalities with 300,000 people and stretching from Bucks County through Montgomery County and into Northeast Philadelphia. Since 1999, 14 flood-related deaths have occurred there, and in the last three decades nearly $30 million in claims have been paid out by the FEMA-run National Flood Insurance Program.

Under a rising threat from stormwater runoff and creek overflow, watershed municipalities contributed a total of $70,000 to Temple's $700,000 remapping project.

FEMA, likewise, was eager for more accurate maps of the Pennypack. With $3 billion in recharting needed nationwide to update its aged archive of 100,000 charts, FEMA had been looking for mapping partners. When Temple offered four years ago to study the Pennypack, FEMA produced a $192,500 grant.

No one anticipated that FEMA would reject the maps, and no one would have guessed the reason: Temple's precision exceeded the agency's standards.

The Temple team found 3.4 square miles in the watershed at high risk of flooding - 24 percent more than shown on FEMA maps. Temple also counted 708 mostly residential buildings in that vulnerable land, an increase of 131.

Those findings, however, were based on a level of detail that violated the agency's uniform standards for mapping, FEMA officials informed the Temple researchers late in the summer. The researchers had surpassed those standards by including small tributaries typically discounted by FEMA, and by including clogged culverts and storm drains in their flood-risk calculations.

Unless amended, Temple's maps will not be added to the federal map collection, which is the foundation of the National Flood Insurance Program. Communities must recognize the FEMA maps if their residents are to be eligible for flood coverage, and mortgage lenders are expected to use them to determine whether borrowers need the policies.

Ken Wallace, an official from FEMA's Philadelphia headquarters, attended the meeting Friday to try to explain. "We are not accepting [the Temple maps] as they are presented now," he told the perplexed crowd of not only municipal officials but representatives of environmental groups and aides to state and federal legislators.

Temple has been asked to recalculate the Pennypack's floodplains based on "our mapping standards for what essentially is just an insurance program," Wallace said. However, he conceded that the Temple maps might provide more reliable flood-risk information than FEMA's.

"If you feel they better serve your community, please adopt them and use them for floodplain-mapping purposes," he said. "You're well within your rights to do so."

It was Wallace who took the brunt of the audience's displeasure.

"I hope you can appreciate the conflict and confusion of having two sets of maps," David Dodies, Upper Moreland Township manager, told him. "Explaining this to a homeowner is obviously going to be very difficult."

Said Michael Powers, Abington's engineer: "Everything is now confused, and when you create confusion with the public, you're in trouble."

Jeffrey Featherstone, director of Temple's Center for Sustainable Communities and head of the Pennypack project, also urged the municipal officials to adopt the maps and use them in crafting land-use ordinances.

"I guess the ball is in your court," he said.

Judging from the pained expressions around the room, aspirin should have been provided with the coffee and water served.

Adrian Meyer, Hatboro's solicitor, raised the specter of voter backlash if too many property owners find themselves in Temple's newly drawn floodplains, with devalued homes and businesses.

"If your constituents say, 'Don't do it,' and you do," he said, "I can't imagine they would want to be voting for you in the future."

For Upper Southampton, adoption of the Temple maps would present a particularly thorny problem.

Only one-third of the township lies in the Pennypack watershed, township manager Joe Golden said earlier in the week. The rest is in the Neshaminy watershed.

"I don't think you should have a double standard among your own residents," he said, "but I do see the advantage of having the most accurate information" - even if only for a portion of the township.

He added, "We've got to think this through a little bit more."

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