Addressing the FEMA-Created Mess

By Bob Hazard   |   June 28, 2018

Last week, the SB County Board of Supervisors (BOS) voted unanimously to adopt the FEMA Interim Flood Map in an effort to expedite and control the rebuilding process in Montecito. As chair of the BOS, supervisor Das Williams noted, “I can’t say I’m comfortable with the option of the Interim Flood Recovery map, but the map, although seriously flawed, needs to be officially adopted by the County.”

Accelerated Adoption

The much-awaited FEMA Flood map was initially released to the public on June 11. Three days later, it was explained at a hastily called, County Office Building presentation. Even though a packed house of Montecito residents shared grave concerns and a sense of confusion, the map was officially adopted by the BOS three working days later.

Many in Montecito urged the BOS to authorize the use of the FEMA Flood Recovery Map by case managers as a useful tool in processing “Like-for-Like” rebuilds but to withhold official endorsement of the map for 60 days until the new map’s accuracy and consistency could be evaluated.

Advocates for restraint included Cori Hayman, chair of Montecito Association (MA) Land Use Committee; Jack Overall, former Montecito Planning Commission (MPC) commissioner; Susan Keller, current MPC commissioner and former MA Land Use chair, J’Amy Brown, former MPC commissioner and MA chair; and Darlene Bierig, former MA Land Use chair. Unfortunately, neither the MPC nor MA had time to call an emergency meeting to bring the issue of the unintended consequences of immediate adoption to unwary Montecito homeowners.

Now that the FEMA flood map has been officially adopted, Montecito residents need to examine their options for individually accepting or collectively challenging the new designations. It is important for each homeowner to study the map and understand the financial consequences and potential added costs that can be inflicted on unwary residents without their knowledge or understanding.

Expansion of the High-Hazard Zone 

Of the 3,500 homes in Montecito, more than 3,000 of them were fortunate enoughto receive little or no damage from either the Thomas Fire or the 1 January Debris Flow.  However, the new FEMA Flood Recovery map has reclassified nearly half of all Montecito homes as being located inside a new “high-hazard” flood zone—twice the size of high-hazard designations on previous maps. According to Tom Fayram, deputy director of county public works, “We are drastically increasing the areas that we are identifying as high-hazard flood risk.”

What this means is that any Montecito homeowner within the newly designated high-hazard flood area who wants to rebuild at any time in the future will be required to raise their first floor level to at least two feet above the flood level shown on the new FEMA map. Raising your home will require rebuilding your home on stilts, or packing mud under your foundation, or installing concrete caissons to raise your home, or a mix of all three.

Most newly designated high-hazard homeowners in Montecito with undamaged homes have no idea they have been reclassified to high-hazard flood status. Informed residents need to look at both the new FEMA flood map and the existing California Geographical Survey maps that measure debris flows to distinguish between the two. Montecito endured a debris flow on January 9, not a flood. The difference is flood damage comes from water flows that can cover a wider range, whereas mud and debris flows are much more concentrated and cover a smaller area.

There are serious real-world financial implications for any Montecito home that is reclassified to “high-hazard,” including a dramatic escalation in rebuilding costs, a potential reduction in home resale value and higher homeowner and flood insurance rates. The half of Montecito, reclassified to “high-hazard” will have to disclose its high-hazard liability to prospective buyers when owners try to sell their home.

Future Homeowner Insurance Implications

County officials insist that the new FEMA flood map will have no effect on future homeowner or flood insurance rates. Permanent flood insurance rate maps, known as a FEMA FIRM maps will not be completed for four to five years, but it is misleading to say that the new FEMA flood map will have no effect on private homeowner property values or new flood insurance rates.

The base data collected for the FEMA flood map will be used in developing the FEMA FIRM maps. The insurance companies are not stupid. They are studying the new FEMA flood map, just like the rest us. Carriers have been stunned by the high cost of rebuilding in Montecito and substantial losses on existing policies.

Insurance companies are well aware of the possibility of more rock-mud-debris flows next winter with the potential for more claims and greater losses. Any home inside the newly defined high-hazard area (nearly 50% of all the homes in Montecito) may be asked to add flood insurance to their homeowners’ insurance policies. 

Recovery of Lost Property Tax Revenue

Many in Montecito fear that the county is anxious to have damaged properties rebuilt as quickly as possible to recover lowered property tax assessments in Montecito. Two percent of county taxpayers reside in Montecito, but Montecito accounts for approximately 17% of the County’s tax base. According to North County 5th District County supervisor Steve Lavagnino, “Ninety percent of Santa Barbara County revenue comes from property taxes and, of course, Montecito is our Golden Goose.”

Das Williams responds: “Do you really think I am so callous and dark a soul as to worry about money more than people in this situation? Many of these properties only have anther 18 months of insurance. We are in a race against time for their economic survival.”

Pending Subjects for Community Review

Tom Bollay spoke on behalf of the Montecito community at last week’s BOS meeting.  He testified that of the 147 homes above East Valley that were destroyed or heavily damaged, six of which included fatalities, only seven residences are shown to be at moderate risk or higher on the new FEMA Flood Recovery map, meaning flood surface flows of one foot or greater in depth.

Here is another inconsistency. Click on the new map and enter the address of the historic Birnam Wood golf clubhouse, built by Chinese stonemasons in 1894 as a Crocker-Sperry citrus packing plant.

The 124-year-old clubhouse sits on level ground at 220 feet above sea level. On previous maps, the Birnam Wood clubhouse has always been designated as being outside the high-hazard zone. It suffered no flood damage on January 9. The new FEMA map shows a mapping anomaly: a mysterious dark blue lake appears atop the sloped roof of the clubhouse, indicating that one end of the clubhouse could be underwater by up to 10 feet in case of flood. The center of the clubhouse is designated as outside the high-hazard designation, but the other end of the clubhouse is back in the high-hazard area and could experience six inches of flooding.

What does this mean? If the clubhouse were to rebuild, one end of the clubhouse over the dining room and kitchen would have to be rebuilt with its foundation raised up to 12 feet higher than it is now; the middle of the club would be okay at its present height; and the right-hand portion of the clubhouse would need to have its historic foundation raised at least 2½ feet above its current elevation. Since the entire clubhouse is at the same ground elevation, the only conclusion is that the FEMA map needs more vetting.  

Modeling Errors Systemic and Pervasive

No one knows for sure whether those abnormalities are insignificant or substantial. We do know that a UCSB scientist calls the modeling errors systemic and pervasive. We also know that Tom Fayram was informed by FEMA that it has no budget to redo the map or correct significant errors. Later, he added, “If the county finds significant issues with the FEMA flood map, we can try to compel the agency to make revisions.” All affected Montecito residents need a clear pathway for appeal following the county’s official adoption of the map in its current form. 

The Bottom Line

Official adoption of the FEMA flood map by the county BOS will have unforeseen consequences on Montecito and its homeowners. Although adoption of the map is a fait accompli, the emotional trauma of rebuilding in any area officially labeled an “extreme danger” is mindboggling, coupled with the risk of a second potential debris flow occurring while you are rebuilding.

Finding a proper pathway for Montecito residents to file for modifications to their new high-hazard designations, as well as finding reasonable solutions for efficient and safe rebuilding compatible with neighbors’ concerns will be a challenge. Some residents will decide to wait and not rebuild for five years; others will move on, leaving an abandoned lot; still others will rebuild at higher elevations, angering neighbors with lower home elevations.

Already, like-for-like rebuilding will bypass the Montecito Board of Architectural Review (MBAR) scrutiny. County planning and its caseworkers from North and South County will make the rebuilding decisions to restore Montecito. Hopefully, it will all work out, but one unfortunate certainty is that Montecito residents will have little say in what we see as an arbitrary rebuilding process. We need to change that.


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