Some Madison Homeowners Unhappy with Flood Plain Changes as Advocates Take Long View
A proposed change to Madison’s flood plain ordinance, which has been discussed and refined by the Coastal Resiliency Commission (CRC) over the last several months and was presented to the Board of Selectmen (BOS) early in March, is drawing significant pushback from some residents whose properties would be affected by the modified rules.
A public hearing last month saw dozens of people speak out, focusing on the burden it would place on them and the potential impact to the overall tax base and the overall desirability of Madison homes.
The BOS will eventually decide to approve or deny the change by majority vote. First Selectman Peggy Lyons recused herself from the initial discussions as her house would be affected by the new ordinance.
The Proposed Changes
About 150 structures would fall under the new regulation, according to the CRC.
Though the ordinance updates language and fixes other issues with the current law, two significant changes meant to encourage coastal residents to better protect their homes from sea level rise and storms were the subject of controversy.
First, it raised the height that homes must be raised to two feet above the federally defined Base Flood Elevation (BFE), which is calculated as the height of a flood that has a one percent chance of occurring in a given year, also known as a 100-year flood. This applies to new constructions or anyone doing substantial improvements or repairs to their homes.
Second, it phases in a longer “lookback” period for those substantial improvements. Currently, homeowners can simply spread the work out over a 12-month period, which dodges the requirement to lift it above the two-foot BFE. The new ordinance would eventually extend that period to five years, which is in line with other shoreline towns like Guilford and Westbrook, according to the CRC.
The CRC will also recommend the creation of a variance process for those who have hardships,
CRC member Woodie Weiss characterized the changes as straightforward and in line with the rest of the state.
“Our charge as a commission was to make Madison more resilient along the coast and I think this is a very modest way to do that,” he told the BOS.
The idea is that existing property owners will eventually be motivated to lift their houses to be in compliance with what the state has recommended as safer standards rather than taking advantage of what is essentially a loophole.
But those property owners, as well as a handful of people who identified themselves as local contractors or real estate agents, said the changes would have a chilling effect on markets and serve as a heavy burden.
Janet Nicolini said she was a resident who would be affected by the change but also a realtor who saw it as a blunder as far as Madison’s property values.
“It’s an extreme hardship for you to tell me I can’t spend half the appraised value of my structure over the course of five years. It’s a hardship that you’re placing on us, and I don’t really see the upside,” she said.
A handful of other speakers said they were either in the middle of improvements or had planned work around the one-year lookback and worried that a change would disallow them from completing property upgrades if they also had to lift their houses. Others questioned why the definition of “substantial improvement”—work equaling a percentage of the value of the property—used assessed value instead of appraised value, which lowered the amount of money they could spend before triggering the new floodplain requirements.
Ann Heron said she felt the ordinance was targeted at wealthier property owners and didn’t consider more modest houses. She said that she had purchased her home on Tuxis Road in 1994 for about $200,000, and the change might force her family to leave town if enacted.
“We were not those kind of people who were coming in as millionaires with an odd $100,000 lying around in case someone at some time decided we needed to raise our house,” she said.
Bruce Katz said he believed people would simply neglect their houses, causing neighborhoods to degrade, which he argued could even create dangerous conditions if certain improvements were put off.
“The entire area is going to look more and more shabby,” he said.
Travis Gulick, a Madison contractor, said he already regularly had to break the bad news to people that statutory requirements to lift houses already prevented a lot of improvements they wanted.
“Looking back five years, people are going to stop buying houses,” he said. “I’ve met with a ton of people who look at houses [and say], ‘Oh yeah I’m not buying that, I’m not putting $100,000 or $120,000 into this to raise it plus renovate it.’”
Gulick added that changes like the one proposed also creates confusion within the market, with realtors failing to inform buyers who are then disappointed when they discover they must lift the house to improve their dwelling.
Purpose of the Changes
Weiss told The Source that while he understood there would be concerns from the relevant property owners, the basis on which the changes were being proposed are scientific, undisputed, and urgent.
“The state has codified...you have to take into account a 20-inch rise by 2050. That’s only 29 years,” he said. “So to do something to your home but not protect it from sea level rise and have it float away...just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Those state standards, adopted in 2018, only require one foot above BFE, but the two-foot choice is aligned with a handful of other nearby towns, Weiss said.
He added that the vast majority of the ordinance changes are simply incorporating new state standards required by federal or state law.
“Ninety-five percent of Madison’s...draft is law [and] has nothing to do with the CRC,” Weiss said. “All these things were codified in 2018 and we have nothing to do with that.”
Several concerns that residents brought up are actually fully accounted for under the provisions of the ordinance, and Weiss said there was unfortunately no chance during the public hearing for members of the CRC to respond.
One person worried that their much older house could not be safely lifted. Weiss said that is accounted for by law, and there are several avenues that an older or historic property can be exempted from the lifting requirement, mostly for buildings that have been recognized locally or state-wide by historic registries.
He also cited the variance process, which would allow any homeowner to appeal to a review board to exempt their property, though in the language of the ordinance, variances are explicitly disallowed if they are solely based on “financial hardship...inconvenience, aesthetic considerations, physical handicaps, personal preferences, or disapproval of one’s neighbors.”
Another resident wondered if lookbacks might put the town in some legal jeopardy. Weiss said that a minimum one-year lookback, whicvh Madison has now, is required by federal law, and that a plurality of other towns in the state have a longer lookback period.
Additionally, he said he had spoken to state officials, who said that no other town had offered a phased approach to increasing the lookback period, which the CRC proposed implementing to soften the blow to residents.
At the federal level, subsidies for flood insurance that have long helped keep rates down for coastal property owners are about to be phased out. Guidance issued by FEMA earlier this year announced that a new way of calculating policies along with these lost subsidies could increase premiums up to 18 percent a year, beginning in October 2021.
“People who put a lot of money into their homes but don’t raise it are going to be walloped as a result of these changes,” Weiss said.
Homes that are raised and compliant will still see rates go up, but to a much lesser degree, according to Weiss.
As far as property values and the potential depression of the real estate market, Weiss said that was not his area of expertise. He said he understood the concerns, but argued that perspective was “penny wise, pound foolish.”
“That’s really taking a very short view of what’s right for the town, and what’s right for the individuals that are buying these homes,” Weiss said. “We’re charged with taking a long view.”