FEMA Rule Change in Waterford Eases Coastal Investment

(Credit: FEMA Flood map service center)


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WATERFORD — Two years is the newly-approved “lookback” period for substantial improvement for buildings in the floodplain in the Town of Waterford, a move that will provide increased flexibility to property owners in maintaining or improving their buildings. 

The Planning and Zoning Commission approved an amendment Monday that reduces the town’s lookback period from the “life of the structure,” the most stringent provision a municipality can choose.

No residents or property owners spoke for or against the amendment during a public hearing on the change.

What is a lookback period? It’s a provision in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulations for owners of properties in the 100-year floodplain that limits investment to 50 percent of the building’s market value during a span of time determined on a municipal level. A project that exceeds the 50 percent spending threshold, triggers FEMA’s “substantial improvement” clause requiring that the building be brought into full compliance with federal flood regulations. These regulations include raising the structure above storm surge height.

Towns and cities have the flexibility to choose lookback periods as short as one year or as long as the life of a structure as a means of managing risk and shaping investment in coastal areas.

Two years was the commission’s “consensus on what a compromise might look like,” said Abby Piersall, director of planning for the town, by phone Tuesday.  

“I think their intent was to make sure they were promoting resilient construction while also allowing homeowners and business owners to reasonably maintain their properties as they needed to,” she said. “The commission was really interested in making sure that investment continues on an appropriate scale, but that there weren’t loopholes in the regulation allowing folks to get out of complying with FEMA elevation requirements — that’s really the genesis of the two years.” 

The decision will allow property owners to move forward on building projects and maintenance with costs that previously would have triggered the substantial improvement rule. 

“I think for folks that have been recently struggling with figuring out how they were going to be able to do some of the work they hoped to be able to do on their homes, this will provide some relief and allow them to make the investments they’d hoped to make in the first place, but couldn’t because of the very restrictive ‘lifetime of structure’ provision,” said Piersall. 

Under the old rule, basic building maintenance over the lifetime of the structure had become onerous for residents. Projects costing more than 50 percent of the building’s market value over the new two-year period would still have to conform to FEMA regulations and elevation requirements, she said.

With the new, more flexible two-year provision, which goes into effect on July 8, Piersall said she hoped more people would apply for building permits. 

“We’re hoping that people who may be been other dissuaded from applying for permits because they were attempting to not have to deal with this provision will be proactive and come in and speak with our office and make sure that they’re getting the right permits in place before they start any work,” she said. 

Unpermitted work can have negative consequences when a homeowner learns after the fact that the 50 percent threshold has been triggered, and can cause difficulties during real estate sales.

“We are seeing an uptick in the number of folks who have completed work on their properties to get around the provision of the regulations,” she said. “We’re finding that when they then go to sell their homes they are running into some trouble because there are no permits on record and the buyers are looking for proof that things were signed off on by the building department and the building department has no records of that work.”

The new provision will lessen the hardship on residents who want to maintain their properties but also help the town manage floodplain risk.

“We want folks to have the flexibility to stay here and improve their properties and also make sure that we’re paying attention to need to improve our resiliency so the commission tried to look at this as a balance of those two issues,” said Piersall.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that substantial improvement is based on market value not assessed value.