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Building Documents To Blame For Flood Plain Designations?

Two paintings in John Talbott's house could be used as a metaphor for the fight he is in with FEMA over floodplain issues.

This is the second in a two-part story.

On the wall of John Talbott’s dining room there are two paintings which sum up part of their owner’s relationship with his current home. In pock-marked hardwood frames are two men in ten-gallon hats, their six-shooters blazing. One wears a badge on his dark red vest, while the other fires back as he struggles to open an iron lock on a chain.

It’s a lawman battling with someone who clearly feels the system has done him wrong, and it’s a fight borne out of some sort of misunderstanding – the same type of fight Talbott appears to be waging.

FEMA Versus Local Standards

His home, strictly speaking, lies a small fraction of a foot above what the Federal Emergency Management Agency sets as what it calls “base flood elevation.”All the land below that level the federal government believes will be underwater if there’s a 100-year flood. In other words, an amount of rain so severe it’s only about 1 percent likely in any given year. Talbott thinks that should be enough for him not to have to spend hundreds of dollars a year on flood insurance.

“I have every reason to believe based on my understanding of the process that the basic idea is that if you can demonstrate that your property is a millimeter above base flood elevation, then it’s basically a cut-and-dry decision,” he says. “It’s not really something that they judge.  They look at it. If you’re out, you’re out and that’s the end of it.”

But there is a problem.

“Bloomington has much higher standards than the federal standards or the state standards,” says FEMA’s Laurie Smith-Kuypers, who led a team of officials on a trip to Bloomington earlier this month to monitor how the county manages its flood plain.

“For instance they require buildings being built in the flood plain to be two feet above a base flood elevation,” she says.

It’s a rule shared by the city and the county and one Talbott may not have known about when his house was built. But the contractor building the home should have. In fact, a note on the plat diagram outlining Talbott’s property at the time of construction includes a note specifying that the base elevation of Talbott’s house should be about three-and-a-half feet higher than it actually is.

Who’s To Blame?

But Talbott and his neighbors note the flood plain maps were reconfigured and the rules changed on them in 2010, making necessary home elevations higher.  However, a similar note on the zoning document allowing the home to be built in 2006 indicates it’s even too low to satisfy the two-foot rule under the old flood plain standards.  So either way, the house never met the two-foot clearance standard and a rule’s a rule, Smith-Kuypers says.

“But then they have to enforce that and if that entails not allowing building in certain areas,” she says. “They have to go with their ordinance and what their ordinance says.”

County planner Larry Wilson says he sympathizes with Talbott and his neighbors, but because the notes on architectural drawings and zooming paperwork were not heeded, Wilson says his office has little choice but to deny Talbott’s requests for help in being exempted from FEMA’s flood plain rules.

“It wasn’t done. I have no idea why it wasn’t done, whether the builder was negligent or whether it was a lack of supervision, but it wasn’t done,” Wilson says.

Talbott says he’s not sure whether he will pursue legal action, either against his builder or against local officials who cleared the home to be built. So, the outcome of both the fight between the gunslingers on Talbott’s wall and any eventual court case revolving around how his house looks on paper may come down to the same factor: who drew first.

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