Shape up or face penalties — that’s the message Lincoln County board of commissioners got from state and federal emergency management officials tasked with overseeing the National Flood Insurance Program.
Representatives of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Nov. 6 they had concerns about the program’s implementation in Lincoln County.
Citing unresponsiveness from local officials and evidence that violations within floodplains went unpunished, they told commissioners Lincoln County was in jeopardy of being placed on probation. Were state and federal officials to take that step, a $50 surcharge will be placed on new and renewed insurance policies through the program.
Ultimately, it could lead to a suspension of the program in Lincoln County. About 65 policies worth roughly $15 million are active through the program on landowners residing in unincorporated portions of the county.
“Probation is a very serious process,” said Tom Birney, natural hazards specialist with FEMA. “We don’t want to go down that road unless we have to.”
The National Flood Insurance Program provides reduced cost policies to public and private landowners in exchange for compliance with floodplain management procedures. If officials suspend a community from the program, it could lead to the loss of federally backed flood insurance and would restrict federal agencies from providing funding — ranging from grants to loans — for structures in flood-prone areas.
Traci Sears, a coordinator with DNRC, said the state became aware of the problems three or four years ago. County officials must meet the minimum requirements of the plan and step up efforts to enforce those regulations as they regard to private landowners, she said.
“There are definitely some concerns as far as the community staying in compliance,” she said. “You have a great advantage at the local level in trying to find some type of solution.”
With hiring new personnel tasked with ensuring landowners are following regulations deemed too expensive, county commissioners said they would move to improve coordination between local agencies and towns.
“You’ve got to look at … the social and economic situation up here,” said County Commissioner Mark Peck (District 1). “We’ve got a lot of the problems that come along with having no economy.”
Peck proposed a sit-down with members of the sheriff’s office, the county attorney’s office, mayors of the county’s communities and others to streamline their response to violators and enforcement of the program’s requirements.
He also proposed the idea of hiring an outside contractor to spearhead the coordination efforts.
Part of the problem is ignorance of the rules involved in developing land within a floodplain served by the program. But Jake Mertes, county environmental health specialist charged with floodplain management, said some landowners and contractors flout the rules.
“Some of these people say, ‘it doesn’t make sense. I’m just going to do it,’” he said.
“We’re compelling people to try to protect themselves, that’s what I’m trying to figure,” Peck said. “What’s our leverage on these people?”
Sears said a few communities have upped fines to deter violaters. Worst case, officials can eventually strip an offending landowner from the program, she said.
Letting violations slip leads to more expensive and time-consuming mitigation efforts down the line, Sears and Birney said.
County Commissioner Josh Letcher (District 3) was charged with overseeing the board’s efforts. Sears also offered county staff access to training resources.
“It’s probably a matter of sitting down and coordinating and not over thinking it,” Peck said.