Longmont Park Rangers to Patrol Downtown Business District

It is Stand with Our St. Vrain Creek’s opinion that the City’s Open Space monies should not be going to police downtown business areas, especially as this seems to be motivated by getting additional people to police the homeless. The City’s Open Space fund should not be raided when that money should go toward maintaining our open spaces.

Please consider attending tonight’s City Council meeting or sending in a comment to City Council and staff letting them know that we don’t want our Open Space tax dollars and lottery fund money to go to patrolling the downtown business district.

Longmont to assign park rangers to downtown duties

By John FryarStaff Writer

POSTED:   04/12/2019 10:13:07 PM MDT | UPDATED:   3 DAYS AGO

 

Wade Kingsbury, Allyssa Kingsbury and Mason Kingsbury, 2, walk down the east side of the 400 Block of Main Street in Longmont in June. The city will hire

Wade Kingsbury, Allyssa Kingsbury and Mason Kingsbury, 2, walk down the east side of the 400 Block of Main Street in Longmont in June. The city will hire park rangers to patrol areas of downtown beginning in mid-May. (Matthew Jonas / Staff Photographer)

If You Go

What: Longmont City Council study session

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Civic Center council chambers

Agenda: tinyurl.com/y4hxdkrw

Longmont is preparing to assign park rangers to its downtown business district, according to the city staff and the Longmont Downtown Development Authority.

Expanding the size and responsibilities of Longmont’s current corps of park rangers — employees who now staff the city’s parks, greenways and open space properties — will “help ensure that everyone using our public spaces has a positive experience,” city staff and Downtown Development Authority officials wrote in a memo for Tuesday night’s city council study session.

City and the Downtown Development Authority staffs will be asking council to consider applying the municipal code’s rules and regulations about uses of “public lands” to some downtown “microplazas” and to the east-west pedestrian breezeways linking the 300, 400 and 500 blocks of Main Street to the north-south alleys behind those blocks.

Longmont Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Kimberlee McKee on Thursday said the move could include adapting park curfews to apply them to the downtown plazas and breezeways.

Under that approach, people could use the breezeways to walk back and forth between Main Street and the parking lots behind Main anytime during the day or night, but between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. people would not be allowed to gather or loiter in those breezeways or plazas, McKee said.

The cost of the program adding park rangers to the downtown area will be $60,000. That expense is to be shared by $30,000 from the city budget’s Colorado Lottery-funded Conservation Trust account, $15,000 from the budget’s open space account and $15,000 from the Downtown Development Authority.

Versions of Longmont’s noise ordinance and its anti-littering and trash-disposal regulations also could be applied to individuals and groups using those public spaces, she said, as part of a goal of “keeping the downtown a safe and comfortable place” for people working in or visiting the area.

“We absolutely want people to use these places. We just want to make sure they’re safe and inviting,” McKee said.

The Downtown Development Authority and city staff in their memo to council suggested the additional rangers also would be responsible for Roosevelt Park at 700 Longs Peak Ave., Thompson Park at 420 Bross St. and Collyer Park at 619 Collyer St.

Longmont is hiring three people who will serve “during the warm season,” downtown and in those downtown-area parks, according to that memo.

The new rangers “will have additional training and a strong tie to police services” and “will focus on education, compliance and enforcement of relevant ordinances in addition to having a wealth of information about natural resources and downtown amenities.

“If they encounter people who need help, they will be able to connect them to those services as well,” city and Downtown Development Authority officials stated in the memo.

“With the goal of keeping downtown clean safe and vibrant, collaborative discussions took place around public lands” between the Development Authority and a Safe and Welcoming Public Spaces internal city staff committee, according to the memo.

One of the recommendations from those discussions about “ensuring that public spaces stay clean and safe was to define and include breezeways and microplazas” in the Public Lands section of municipal code in order to set “rules and expectations” for downtown public spaces, the Development Authority and city staff reported.

The city and Development Authority staffs plan to bring an ordinance to the council, “in the coming weeks,” that would apply many of the public lands code rules to breezeways and microplazas.

The city also issued a Thursday night news release announcing the expanded-ranger program for downtown Longmont, calling it “an effort to provide more eyes and ears and a welcoming presence in Longmont’s public spaces.”

Pedestrian traffic to downtown restaurants and businesses have increased, and the area is an important entry point to the city’s trails and greenway system, said David Bell, the city’s natural resources manager.

“Increasingly, public spaces like plazas and breezeways in downtown are well used, serving as connections to parks and open spaces in other parts of the city,” Bell stated in the news release.

As Longmont expands its park ranger program into the downtown, “it makes sense” to apply many of the city’s rules about the uses of parks and greenways to the downtown’s plazas and breezeways, he said.

Last year, Longmont and the Downtown Development Authority shared in the costs of paying private security firm Trident Protection Group $29,440 to have “ambassadors” patrol parts of the downtown, downtown-area parks, and the city’s St. Vrain Greenway and Lefthand Greenway in June, July and August.

City staff in Thursday’s news release said that while that pilot program of using privately contracted ambassadors was “useful for understanding downtown needs and wants,” the Downtown Development Authority and the city “believe expansion of the city’s existing ranger program staffed by city employees, would better serve the area.”

Bell in a Friday interview and email said the decision to staff the downtown area with rangers, rather than using a security firm again, was based in part on the idea that it would be “a lot more beneficial to have individuals who work directly for the city,” rather than outsourcing the job.

“As the manager of the park rangers and the parks operations team, my commitment is to make sure that our parks are clean, safe and welcoming to all of our current users and assuring that we protect our natural, cultural and historic resources for future generations,” he said.

One of the three rangers will be a certified law enforcement officer, Bell said, and able to perform such functions as making arrests if needed. All three will be seasonal employees and not full-time throughout the year.

He said none of the three rangers has yet been hired but his goal is to have them hired, trained and on the job by mid-May.

The city’s news release said if council decides to apply some of Longmont’s public lands municipal code regulations to the downtown breezeways and plazas, “the new rangers would enforce these regulations and will also serve as goodwill ambassadors and deliver helpful services to business owners, patrons, and visitors.”

Contact Staff Writer John Fryar at 303-684-5211 or jfryar@times-call.com or twitter.com/jfryartc

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Longmont opportunity zone interest building as city leaders prep St. Vrain corridor, sugar factory as targets

Longmont opportunity zone interest building as city leaders prep St. Vrain corridor, sugar factory as targets

Floodplain redraw could help investors avoid insurance costs; tax cut boosts feasibility of sugar site

By Sam LounsberryStaff Writer

POSTED:   03/30/2019 10:00:00 AM MDT

 

A bulldozer moves dirt March 19 in the St. Vrain River as part of the Resilient St. Vrain project. Floodplain mapping will need to be updated in accordance
A bulldozer moves dirt March 19 in the St. Vrain River as part of the Resilient St. Vrain project. Floodplain mapping will need to be updated in accordance with the changes to the river made by the Resilient St. Vrain post-flood channel work.That project and the adjoining federal opportunity zones that line the river are leading officials to envision more uniform growth along the river. (Lewis Geyer / Staff Photographer)

Longmont officials are envisioning a redeveloped sugar factory and more uniform growth along the St. Vrain River, both made more realistic thanks to new federal tax incentives and a major city floodplain mitigation project.

City leaders hope to leverage two adjoining federal opportunity zones covering a large southern portion of Longmont as lures for what will be a costly repurposing of the sugar factory property in southeast Longmont, and, more broadly, for attracting new affordable and “work force” housing and commercial space to the St. Vrain’s course through the city.

(Mary Hilleren / Staff graphic designer)

The opportunity zone program was created by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It allows investors to put capital gains into development projects within designated census tracts, chosen for their relatively depressed economic status. The taxes on those initially invested capital gains, as well as gains made since on the real estate projects within the zones, get deferred after five years of keeping an interest in such properties, and the tax cut grows if the interest is held for seven years and grows again after 10 years.

Together, the zones stretch east-west from Hover to Lashley streets, extending further east south of Third Avenue to include the sugar factory and north-south from the north bank of the St. Vrain to Ninth Avenue.
Modern gateway more possible

For the site of the former and now fire-damaged Great Western sugar factory, the opportunity zone may ease the financial burden of either incorporating the long-standing structure into a new building or tearing it down. It could also help mitigate any costs associated with the potential need to remedy any soil or other contamination on the site caused by decades of industrial activity.

“I think the community at large would really like to see that sugar mill area turn into something that is a positive and welcoming modern gateway into our community,” Longmont Economic Development Partnership CEO Jessica Erickson said.

Sugar factory owner Dick Thomas in a brief interview said the opportunity zone provisions are just one of several financial vehicles being analyzed in talks to redevelop the land — he is engaged with several groups that have expressed interest in bringing modern mixed commercial and residential structures to the property. He said the range between $60 million and $100 million has been identified as an initial cost estimate for such a project.

Thomas hopes to assimilate what remains of the brick factory building into a redeveloped parcel.

“We’re not going to tear it down. Most of what’s there will remain,” he said, declining to further elaborate on redevelopment talks or to identify the investors with whom he is negotiating.

Redrawn floodplain negating insurance costs

Before the opportunity zone can most effectively aid financing development in several key areas along the river, the $120 million-plus Resilient St. Vrain project, which is rejigging the stream’s channel and floodplain through the city, needs to make more progress, and the resulting smaller floodplain will have to receive federal approval so development limitations in the areas purged of risk can be lifted.

The abandoned Sugar Factory in Longmont could benefit from its location in one of two federal opportunity zones in the city. Tax incentives associated with

The abandoned Sugar Factory in Longmont could benefit from its location in one of two federal opportunity zones in the city. Tax incentives associated with those zones could mitigate the cost of incorporating the building into new development or tearing it down to make way for new development. (Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer)

“We were very intentional about focusing on areas of strong opportunity and that already had plans in place and broad public support to move development forward, but had some issues in attracting capital,” Erickson said. “The floodplain issues were part of that.”

Preliminary approval of redrawn floodplain maps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — which dictate which property owners have to buy flood insurance — is expected in July this year. Those new maps won’t take effect until three months after that when an appeal period expires, according to Longmont Floodplain Manager Monica Bortolini. If a legitimate appeal to the preliminary floodplain maps has to be evaluated, the timing of when the final maps would be issued is unknown, she said.

Carlos Torres lays down 2x4s to build another wall at the construction site of South Main Station in January. The mixed-use development at First Avenue and

Carlos Torres lays down 2x4s to build another wall at the construction site of South Main Station in January. The mixed-use development at First Avenue and Main Street lies within one of the two federal opportunity zones in the city. Its developers have applied for the funding for which the location makes it eligible. (Lewis Geyer / Staff Photographer)

“The part of the opportunity zone that is subject to flooding in the near term is generally south of the rail tracks,” Longmont Redevelopment Program Manager Tony Chacon said. “The drainage improvements to be concluded this year will effectively pull some of the properties immediately adjacent to the creek out of the floodplain, and the remaining areas will see a reduction in the depth of the 100-year flooding condition.”

Of course, flood concerns throughout the rest of the opportunity zones are not impacting development proposals with plans to use the tax cut, according to city leaders.

Even those properties within the current floodplain can be engineered to work around the development regulations in the risky area, Chacon noted.

He added the requirement to purchase flood insurance — especially temporarily, as might be the case for land along the St. Vrain lifted from the floodplain by the Resilient St. Vrain work — can be the most pesky hurdle for developers examining building options for a property in a floodplain.

“In regards to these issues, our engineering and planning staff are working collectively and diligently to facilitate new development in the flood-prone areas,” Chacon said. “While I am sure some prospective developers may deem the floodplain an issue, I don’t see the floodplain issue being a significant deterrent to opportunity zone interest, as, in fact, the city is receiving continued developer inquiry and conversations.”

College downtown?

But talks with developers who could actually use the opportunity zone program beneficially remain secretive and prospective, including those involving attempts to sway Front Range Community College to establish a visible presence in downtown Longmont.

“I can tell you that no one has committed to any particular project yet or even entered into any level of detailed discussion or negotiation,” Chacon said. “We may have something to better share in a few months. I can say the general interest is in vertical mixed-use or residential development, primarily rental.”

Councilman Tim Waters is a part of a group of city and economic development leaders studying the potential offered by the opportunity zone for the St. Vrain River corridor, as well as the regulations that help keep the stream a gem of riparian habitat and natural beauty. An example of such a rule would be the like the 150-foot development setback from the river’s bank for which only city council can approve a variance.

“What exists along the river in San Antonio, that’s just not going to be the case” for the St. Vrain, Waters said. “We’re going to maintain our greenways, we’re going to maintain our riparian areas, our wildlife areas.”

The soon-to-be-finished Dickens Farm Nature Area park along the river south of Boston Avenue between Main and Martin streets will ensure an open space element remains along the St. Vrain River in central Longmont, and the green space could be a highlight for any new multifamily housing developments in the area to market to prospective tenants.

But Waters is also aware of discussions about Front Range Community College potentially moving from its southwest Longmont campus, or adding to its property portfolio in the city, in order to open up shop — possibly with another institutional partner that would offer additional higher education paths — closer to downtown.

“Front Range Community College is happy to be in Longmont, and we like our current location. We’re certainly always open to discussions of other possible partnership options in the community, and greatly appreciate the city’s interest in working with us to create an even better campus,” the school’s president, Andy Dorsey, stated through a spokeswoman. “We have had a very preliminary conversation with the city about this concept, but it’s way too early to suggest that we’ll be moving.”

Councilman: Academic assets would spur economic activity

Waters mentioned the city’s land holdings include a site just north of the river, southwest of South Main and Boston Avenue, that formerly hosted a mobile home park that was destroyed in the 2013 flood. It, along with several other city-owned parcels near the river south of downtown, could be packaged into a land assembly effort for a development project the city would be inclined to support, such as a Front Range or other higher education space that may be able to take advantage of the area’s opportunity zone status.

“We’re keenly interested in a more robust presence of higher education options here along with Front Range so that our kids could go as far as they want in terms of their educational pursuits without ever having to leave home or Longmont to do that,” Waters said, contending more local educational opportunity would lead to an unprecedented business climate for the city.

He believes if the opportunity zone attracts additional academic assets within Longmont, they could satisfy a need for a better educated work force that certain employers in the area have made known. Fostering greater talent locally, Waters explained, will allow businesses to recruit more from within the city instead of luring skilled labor from outside Boulder County and Colorado, atrend that has helped drive recent population growth in the state.

“We have the potential to create an economic engine that transcends the kind of economic development we have seen here before in Longmont,” Waters said.

Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, slounsberry@prairiemountainmedia.com andtwitter.com/samlounz.

Stonework is installed on on the new South Pratt Parkway bridge as part of the Resilient St. Vrain project March 19. Floodplain mapping will need to be

Stonework is installed on on the new South Pratt Parkway bridge as part of the Resilient St. Vrain project March 19. Floodplain mapping will need to be updated in accordance with the changes to the river made by the Resilient St. Vrain post-flood channel work. That project and the adjoining federal opportunity zones that line the river are leading officials to envision more uniform growth along the river. (Lewis Geyer / Staff Photographer)
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We Made it into the Paper!–Longmont City Council urged to pause development considerations along St. Vrain River corridor

Postcards presented to Longmont City Council asking for stronger protections for St. Vrain Creek and Longmont’s other Open Space and Natural Areas.

Thank you to everyone who came out to show their support for greater protections for St. Vrain Creek and our other Open Space and Natural Areas this past Tuesday! We made a big splash and were on the front page of the Times Call newspaper on Thursday, October 4.

Longmont City Council urged to pause development considerations along St. Vrain River corridor

By Sam LounsberryStaff Writer

POSTED:   10/03/2018 06:14:51 PM MDT | UPDATED:   ABOUT 16 HOURS AGO

 

Flood recovery work continues Wednesday on the banks of the St. Vrain River in Longmont. Dozens of residents asked Longmont City Council during public

Flood recovery work continues Wednesday on the banks of the St. Vrain River in Longmont. Dozens of residents asked Longmont City Council during public comment at Tuesday’s meeting to pause development near the river’s banks. (Lewis Geyer / Staff Photographer)

Dozens of residents turned out at Tuesday’s Longmont City Council meeting to request a pause on development near the banks of the St. Vrain River.

Proponents for protecting the St. Vrain River from infringing construction dropped off 724 postcards to council members asking the 150-foot setback of development from the stream’s banks be maintained and enforced.

While that setback is in place, it was only in August that updates to the Land Development Code moved the authority to grant a variance to the 150-foot river buffer solely to City Council instead of the city’s planning director.

The contingent of public speakers also gave council members a petition with 520 signatures that supports putting development “in proximity” to the St. Vrain on hold, Stand With Our St. Vrain Creek organizer Shari Malloy said.

“We … urge Longmont Mayor Brian Bagley and City Council members to protect Longmont’s sensitive and important riparian areas from the intrusion of damaging urban development,” the petition reads.

It asks to pause building plans near the river until the Federal Emergency Management Agency approves new floodplain maps for the stream; until funding has been identified for the estimated $60 million in remaining unfunded costs of the Resilient St. Vrain project; and until a second phase of updates to the Land Development Code sections regarding riparian protection and wildlife management are completed.

Kat Bradley-Bennett, a Blue Mountain Circle resident, said the St. Vrain provides important habitat for migrating waterfowl.

“We have the opportunity to preserve this really rich wildlife habitat,” she said.

In a Wednesday interview, Left Hand Brewing’s owner contested the city’s ability to stop all development within the setback.

The Longmont-based brewery is designing conceptual plans for an event venue to host its nonprofit fundraisers, such as Oktoberfest, on land it owns east of its main brewery building on Boston Avenue next to the river.

Eric Wallace, its co-founder and president, said a halt on development near the river would have to be temporary and still allow for “legitimate consideration” of approval for building plans to avoid legal challenges.

“If council is considering each development request within the riparian setback and giving legitimate consideration, it shouldn’t have a big impact on (Left Hand’s plans),” Wallace said. “I don’t know (the city) can take all that land from people.”

However, city leaders have discussed possibly using city funds to buy the 150-foot setback from the St. Vrain along its corridor through the city, Longmont Land Program Administrator Dan Wolford said.

Timeline for petition requests

The three items petitioners want to happen before the city allows development along the St. Vrain River appear to have similar timelines. Although it is unknown when or if remaining funding Resilient St. Vrain project work will be secured, both the FEMA floodplain maps and the Land Development Code updates could be in place within a year.

Updated floodplain maps for the St. Vrain River have been sent to FEMA for review, according to the Longmont city website, and they likely will become effective in early 2019.

The second phase of Land Development Code updates, with changes to the riparian protection and wildlife management sections, is expected to come before council for approval in June 2019.

But the floodplain within the city could be altered again by ongoing Resilient St. Vrain work. That work aims to increase the river’s water capacity with the goal of keeping any future flooding from affecting as wide a swath of land as the 2013 flood.

Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, slounsberry@prairiemountainmedia.com andtwitter.com/samlounz.

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‘Take Two Trees And Call Me In The Morning’: More Docs Are Prescribing Time Outdoors | CPR

In her new book “The Nature Fix,” journalist Florence Williams documents scientists’ quest to understand how being outdoors affects our health.

Source: ‘Take Two Trees And Call Me In The Morning’: More Docs Are Prescribing Time Outdoors | CPR

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A 1,000-year flood in Maryland shows the big problem with so much asphalt | Salon.com

So what’s behind the propensity for floods in Ellicott City? Part of the problem is its vulnerable location: the town lies at the foot of a hill where river branches meet the Patapsco River. And, of course, climate change makes storms wetter and increases the frequency of severe, record-breaking weather. But there’s another thing people are pointing out: concrete. When hard, impermeable concrete replaces absorbent green spaces, it’s much easier for floodwaters to overwhelm stormwater drainage.

Source: A 1,000-year flood in Maryland shows the big problem with so much asphalt | Salon.com

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Appeal Hearing for Martin Marietta Material Permit

In 1998, Boulder County approved a special use permit to allow gravel mining on 881 acres of property owned by Western Mobile in the St. Vrain River Valley east of Lyons. River valleys are often targeted for gravel mining due to the accumulation of gravel and other sediments that build up in floodplains.

In 2011, the land was sold to Martin Marietta Materials Inc., which is now seeking to continue gravel mining operations on the property. Included with the mines, they’re also planning to build a number of accessory structures within the 100 year flood plain of St. Vrain Creek.

The special use permit included a clause that the permit will lapse if no activity authorized under the permit has been conducted for a continuous period of 5 years or more. On April 11, 2018, Boulder County ruled that the permit is still valid. However, prior to the onset of mining operations, the Boulder County Board of Adjustment must hold public hearings on the proposal.

The first of such public hearings is scheduled for Wednesday, June 6, 2018. The appeal hearing begins at 4:00 PM at the Commissioner’s Hearing Room, 1325 Pearl St., Boulder, CO 80302.

You can find more information about the public hearing here.

Gravel mining on St. Vrain Creek upstream of Longmont would likely increase the risk of flooding, both within the city and in surrounding areas downstream, which would completely defeat the purpose of the Resilient St. Vrain flood mitigation project that Longmont is currently undertaking. This 2014 conference paper by Anthony R. Ladson and Dean A. Judd explains the short and long-term risks of floodplain gravel mining, particularly the likelihood that such mining may alter the flow of flood water and change river channels. As stated in the paper:

A literature review found 37 examples where rivers had broken into gravel mines and the resulting river response had led to bed and bank erosion and threats to infrastructure.

A river is likely to jump tracks into a gravel pond because water follows the path of least resistance. When this happens, it increases the likelihood of damage. In 2013, this was perfectly illustrated when St. Vrain Creek diverted through the former gravel pits at Pella Crossing Open Space in Hygiene as described in this Times Call letter to the editor by Richard Cargill.

Please consider attending the public hearing on Wednesday, June 6 to voice your concerns regarding Martin Marietta’s gravel mining operation.

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Droughts And Wildfires Mean Floods Are Likely. Is The Front Range Ready? | CPR

The St. Vrain creek flows around a bridge damaged in flooding days earlier, in Longmont, Colo., Tuesday Sept. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

According to an interview with former FEMA director Craig Fugate, some of the most populous areas of Colorado, including Boulder County, are likely to see more and worse flooding as a result of the current drought. Fugate points to Fort Collins’ program to buy up land in the flood plain as green space as one way to protect against flood damage to homes and businesses.

Source: Droughts And Wildfires Mean Floods Are Likely. Is The Front Range Ready? | CPR

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February Nature Almanac: River otters resurge in Boulder County – Boulder Daily Camera

The river otter is a Colorado state threatened species that looks to be making a comeback in Boulder County, including in St. Vrain Creek.

A sleek brown body surged through the water. A broad head turned, and curious eyes surveyed the astounded onlookers. A muskrat? A mink? No, a river-otter! After an absence of almost half a century, they are coming back.

Source: February Nature Almanac: River otters resurge in Boulder County – Boulder Daily Camera

 

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Builders Said Their Homes Were Out of a Flood Zone. Then Harvey Came.

In the years leading up to Hurricane Harvey, a wrinkle in the federal flood-mapping system helped a company build homes in an at-risk Houston suburb.

Source:

Builders Said Their Homes Were Out of a Flood Zone. Then Harvey Came.

This recently posted New York Times article (12/2/17) shows that many of the homes and businesses that were damaged in Houston, TX, had been “lifted out of” the flood plain by filling in low-lying areas with dirt.

While the damages from the 2013 Longmont flood didn’t result from infilling, this article does raise questions about whether “taking an area out of the flood plain” is truly possible.

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Why are federal flood maps so flawed? — High Country News

Lewis County, Washington, experienced flooding of farmland, highways and houses in 2007.

Washington State Department of Transportation

Last week, Hurricane Harvey devastated the city of Houston. The scale of the tragedy shocked even the National Weather Service. But perhaps the most shocked set of people is the 40 to 50 percent of Houstonians who live outside Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mapped high-risk flood zones and yet still found their living rooms underwater.

FEMA’s maps represent the government’s best estimates of flood plains. They hold a lot of power: When property isn’t included on FEMA’s “magical map,” its residents aren’t required to buy flood insurance. This tends to impart a false sense of security, says Rob Moore, senior water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That’s why these flood maps lead to such risky behavior and have such tragic consequences.”

But as we have seen, both last week and in years previous, FEMA’s predictions are also frequently wrong. Why?

Some of the reasons are the ones you might have guessed. FEMA’s maps are backward-looking, often out of date, and based on historical flooding and development. They don’t anticipate trends pointing to the future of climate change and rising sea levels, shown by repeatedly flooded areas in Houston that lie outside of supposedly 100-year and 500-year flood zones. And, of course, 100-year and 500-year floods are occurring much more frequently than we’d expect, implying that those zones need to be updated. The maps also don’t account for rapidly expanding development in flood-prone suburban and exurban regions.

But another issue is the amount of control local politicians exert on these maps. As flood maps are developed, some local officials and communities have disproportionate influence on how they take shape. Politicians prefer to keep flood zones small to save their constituents money and allow for more development, according to new research by Sarah Pralle, a political scientist at Syracuse University, presented in San Francisco at the American Political Science Association’s annual conference on Thursday.

Pralle interviewed federal, state, and local managers and contractors as part of her research. “The overriding concern of local officials is to reduce the size of flood maps and to reduce base flood levels,” she says. That’s because the 100-year flood crest level, whatever it may be, then dictates the level at which buildings must be built. Local residents have a vested interest in making flood zones as small and low as possible, so they hire surveyors, engineering firms, or lawyers to help challenge and appeal FEMA’s preliminary maps.

This ability to shape FEMA maps is disproportionately held by wealthier communities — poorer communities often lack the resources to pay their own “experts.” This is particularly problematic for residents when mapping follows development rather than the other way around. People buying homes or condos in a newly developed area might not know they’re in a flood zone until FEMA updates its map to include all the new construction. Then they’re slapped with flood insurance they can’t afford or dispute, and their property values go down — a new form of “redlining.”

Of course, FEMA tries to accurately communicate flood risks, and its maps, which are tied to the National Flood Insurance Program’s rates, have saved the country money. But since climate scientists predict sea levels will likely rise 1 to 3.2 feet this century — with the higher part of that range coming from emitting greenhouse gases in a “business-as-usual” scenario — the maps need to address that. But even in a scenario in which the government agency wants to take climate change as seriously as it should, the maps are hard to adjust. Like the census, it takes time and billions of dollars with each update. And a FEMA official who responded to my request for comment said that after Harvey, its focus is on recovery, rather than mapping.

Unfortunately, we have neither the ability nor the political will to update the maps in a reasonable fashion. Far from providing the additional funds the organization would need to rethink its zoning recommendations, President Donald Trump proposed cutting the organization’s budget by $190 million in his (largely meaningless, except in messaging) budget. His budget would also drop local communities’, states’ and tribes’ grant funding for disaster mitigation, which would be used to help prepare for the next hurricane. And while Congress rejected Trump’s dramatic budget, it hasn’t contributed extra funding either.

A FEMA advisory committee, which includes climate scientists, engineers, and surveyors, recommends making two sets of maps, a short-term one like is done now and a future-oriented one that accounts for evolving flood conditions incorporating climate change projections for rising seas, erosion hazards, and expanding development. In a statement, a FEMA representative wrote:

“In 2012, Congress recognized the need to evaluate our existing mapping program and the potential to include considerations for climate sciences and future conditions by establishing the Technical Mapping Advisory Council (TMAC). The TMAC is a federal advisory committee established to review and make recommendations to FEMA specifically on these issues. We have worked to support the TMAC in their review of our mapping program and will continue to work with them as they outline reports and recommendations to improve our programs in this space.”

But the agency has yet to act on those recommendations. Currently, New York City is the only place in the country that takes climate change into account when mapping flood zones, following a special program adopted after Hurricane Sandy. If FEMA doesn’t find the funds and political will to reform its flood mapping system, it won’t stop the flooding. We’ll just continue to be underprepared, inundated, and overwhelmed.

Source: Why are federal flood maps so flawed? — High Country News

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