South Bethany to foot the bill for potential FEMA maps appeal

It’s appeal season in South Bethany, as the town council voted this week to pay around $23,000 to potentially appeal its new flood insurance rate map (FIRM).

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) opened the 90-day appeal period on Oct. 23 for maps that have been unpopular in the town since they were first publicized in 2014. With property owner pushback, FEMA agreed to restart the public process.

Appeals must be scientifically grounded, so the Town of South Bethany will pay $12,780 for additional modeling and up to $10,580 if it decides to make an appeal ($23,360 total).

After the council voted unanimously on Oct. 22 (George Junkin had an excused absence) to support the residents in their desire for an appeal, they voted unanimously to fund the project, which is to be led by the Woods Hole Group. The environmental, scientific and engineering consulting agency is based in Massachusetts, with a Dover field office.

Oceanfront property owners paid for the first WHG consultation.

“They felt there was a pretty good chance BFE [base flood elevation] could be modified,” but WHG must do full mathematical analysis to determine if FEMA’s math is off by an inch or a yard, said resident Tim Shaw, who is leading the effort for the change.

WHG suggested that some of FEMA’s data was old or inaccurate, and that of multiple models, FEMA used the one that produces the “worst possible outcome,” Shaw said.

With further study, WHG would determine whether South Bethany can make a successful appeal to FEMA. WHG would then prepare the appeal.

Shaw presented the cost outline to the town council.

“The first three [tasks] get us to the point where they can say, in fact, we have scientific-based, real data that the BFE should be modified, or that nope, it’s not worth pursuing,” Shaw said. “If there is indication they could get, say, a foot or even two, we would strongly urge that go forward with official appeal.”

The cost was more than residents anticipated.

“Since we’ve paid for it to this point, we felt it was fair and reasonable to ask the council” to fund and oversee the appeal process, Shaw said.

Woods Hole Group will charge for the following tasks:

• Task 1: Review the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers design study for the Bethany Beach and South Bethany dune project — $1,000

• Task 2: Modeling and flood zone mapping — $7,990

• Task 3: Develop strategy for appeal — $3,790

(The town council would then vote on whether to submit an appeal, based on WHG’s likelihood of success.)

• Task 4: Prepare and file appeal — $7,280

• Task 5: Tracking and support of FEMA appeal, as needed, (assumes a total of 20 man hours, not to exceed 10 percent of the total contract’s value) — $3,300.

The council would vote at the Dec. 11 council meeting whether to move forward with that appeal. If so, the appeal would be delivered to the town by Jan. 6, 2016.

The deadline for FEMA appeals is Jan. 20, 2016. Anyone may appeal FEMA’s maps, but it must go through the Town.

Councilman Tim Saxton asked if the council gets to vote whether to move forward after Task 2, so South Bethany wouldn’t spend money developing a plan of attack if the data shows it’s highly unlikely to succeed. Although part of Task 3 involves analyzing that data gathered in Task 2, Mayor Pat Voveris agreed to ask.

Those are the tasks that property owners specifically requested, including an estimate for Task 5, Shaw said. He doesn’t want the Town wasting taxpayer money if it doesn’t have to.

Shaw said the residents did their homework in choosing Woods Hole Group. They interviewed the company and some of its clients. Because they pick their battles, “WHG has surprisingly high rates of success,” Shaw said.

Voveris agree that the firm has been very responsive to her questions.

The Town had also hired Taylor Engineering, which found similar mapping issues as WHG, but refused to assist in an appeal, since they now contract with FEMA.

Voveris supported the Town’s continuing with the residents’ work on an appeal.

“To begin the ball rolling — I don’t know that we could have anything again in the 90-day appeal period,” Voveris said. “I think it’s just very fortunate and just shows the coming together of the Town and the owners in full-fledged support. … We feel we owe it, as a government, to our Town to be the very best we can be.”

So far, South Bethany’s consultation focuses only on the oceanfront because no one from other neighborhoods asked for changes, although other areas are seeing their BFE increasing by a foot or two in the new maps, noted Councilwoman Carol Stevenson.