Larimer: Expect Changes To Flood Plain Maps

In the wake of the devastating September 2013 flood Larimer County officials want to review the County’s flood plain maps. In some cases rivers moved and/or created new channels, for example. FEMA does not require periodic review of flood plain maps but local governments often begin the process by making the request of State and FEMA officials.

The County’s Flood Overlay Zone regulations recently attracted the interest of REALTORS when property owners in the McConnell subdivision in LaPorte discovered their homes are located in the overlay zone and that the designation hurt their ability to sell their properties. Structures in the overlay zone cannot be permitted for extensive renovations or rebuilt if they are substantially damaged. (Note: Larimer County adopted its first flood regulations 1975. In 1979 the first official FEMA flood rate insurance map was issued for Larimer County. However, the 1979 maps did not cover all waterways in the County and the LaPorte area was added later.)

Eric Tracy, the County’s Flood Plain Manager, said “substantial damage” is defined by the Larimer County Land Use Code as damage equal to or exceeding 50 percent of the market value of a structure. When a property located in the floodway overlay zone is damaged and meets this qualification it cannot be rebuilt (or renovated).

The property owners protested the situation, prompting the Larimer County Commission to consider some slight regulatory changes as a result. While the County will not remove flood damage from its definition of “substantial damage,” the Board of County Commissioners is willing to consider revising the Code to allow rebuilding in the case of non flood-related damage.

In discussing this with the REALTORS, Tracy explained that FEMA recommends that local regulations exceeds the minimum criteria needed in order to qualify for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). While FEMA regulations allow rebuilding as long as a home is elevated, the County chose more restrictive regulations. Tracy cited the example of a homeowner who received a variance to rebuilding after 1976. The home was rebuilt at a higher elevation but was completely destroyed in the 2013 flood.

He added that the County also considers problems such as debris caused damage. If the County allowed a property owner to rebuild a structure in the floodway and the structure was damaged in another flood event, the debris from that structure could cause property damage or loss of life downstream. Protecting the public and emergency officials who respond to natural disasters, are also County priorities. Flash floods, such as we experience, happen with little warning and are quite different from “inundation” flooding that occurs along the Mississippi and other rivers to the east.

Tracy hopes the County will consider regulations that differentiate between areas like the Big Thompson Canyon and other areas that would not be prone to the same degree of flash flooding. For example, Boulder County recently adopted regulations that take into account high hazard areas in floodways that calculate velocity and water depth to allow for more specific predictions of which properties in the floodway are more likely to be in jeopardy. However, the County isn’t actively considering “high hazard” regulations at this time.

Judging from public comments made by the Commissioners, the County doesn’t appear to be willing to weaken its floodway regulations. Commissioner Steve Johnson said, “I think it’s fairly obvious that a no-build policy in the canyon, given the last two Big Thompson floods, makes sense.” The County has received federal grant money to buy some flood impacted properties from willing sellers, but has opted for a valuation system based on post-flood appraisals so that the County can help more afflicted owners, Tracy said. Note: There are nearly 500 structures in the County’s flood overlay zone although it is unknown how many of these structures are residential dwellings.

After the public meetings on the proposed code revision to permit rebuilding related to substantial non flood related damage, the amendments will be considered by the Larimer Planning Commission. It is expected that the Commissioners will hold hearings on the amendments in June.

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