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Saturday, March 24 News

New flood lines draw criticism

Some property owners near the Stony Brook and Goodwives rivers are upset with changes to the established flood zones, which have increased to encompass more homes following a re-evaluation of the watershed.

"There are many parts of this that are not fair," said Jeanine Armstrong Gouin, vice president and the director of water resources engineering and environmental science of Milone & MacBroom, at a May 28 meeting in Town Hall. "You have to pay for flood insurance for something you hope you never need."

Milone & MacBroom is the engineering, planning, landscape architecture and environmental science consulting firm the town hired following the 2006 floods.

Homeowners can purchase flood coverage through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's national flood insurance program. Another "unfair" piece of the new flood maps, Gouin said, is that FEMA has data and modeling that is "old and antiquated."

The flood plain maps, which were last updated in 1978, were evaluated by Milone & MacBroom. The storms -- on April 22 and Aug. 26 -- dumped 5.6 inches of rain on Darien. Two watershed studies -- near the Stony Brook and Goodwives rivers -- were conducted, and when Milone & MacBroom presented its findings to the Board of Selectmen in 2008 and 2009, the board decided to send out a letter of map revision. A letter of map revision is sent to affected homeowners when the flood zones change.

"What we often see in areas where FEMA mapping is very old and conditions have remarkably changed, is that people had a false sense of security that they were not vulnerable to (flooding)," said Nicolle Burnham, a principal civil engineer with Milone & MacBroom.

She added that the data used by FEMA "severely underestimated" where the flood plain actually would be in the case of a 100-year storm, which is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as one that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. More than one 100-year storm can occur during the year.

Some of the properties now included in the flood plains, which take effect in August, are just barely in the flood zone, causing some confusion for homeowners looking to purchase insurance, Ginsberg said. As of May 2009, there were 292 homes within the flood zone, according to the town's planning and zoning director, Jeremy Ginsberg. The additional number of homes that will be affected because of the flood map revision is not yet known.

"Certain properties are very easy to see whether they're in the flood zone," Ginsberg said. "They're clearly in, or they're clearly out. Some properties, it's difficult. Some of the maps are too tough to read to make a solid determination."

According to Ginsberg, a home is within the zone -- and will, therefore, need insurance -- if the flood lines touch the house. If a house is on a hill and the flood line touches the driveway at the bottom of the hill, the house is not in the flood plain, and therefore insurance is not needed. But some of the lines are too close to tell, and Ginsberg has been meeting with homeowners to determine if they are truly in the flood zone.

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"If I look on a map and I see a line, does that mean during a 100-year storm, (my property) is going to be damp or is going to be deep?" Mark Thorne said.

Burnham said it all depends on how close to the rivers the property lies.

"I want to be clear, the Town of Darien has not put you in the flood plain," First Selectmen Jayme Stevenson said. "You are, by virtue of modern analysis, in the flood plain."

Stevenson said the initial work of Milone & MacBroom was in response to a "very large public outcry" following the storms in 2006 and 2007 to mitigate the flooding problems.

"The town asked you to solve a problem," Bill Donzeiser, of Hamilton Lane, said. "The town doesn't have a game plan to solve any problem."

Following the initial release of Milone & MacBroom's watershed analysis, the town created a flood mitigation strategy committee to determine projects to alleviate flooding, but it was disbanded following its suggestion for flood mitigation.

"In order to solve a problem, you need to know what the problem is," Stevenson said. "We are trying to move forward on tangible recommendations."

One of those recommendations was the Intervale Road drainage project, which is on hold while the town obtains easements to start work.

The Intervale Road drainage plan, which will widen pipes and install more catch basins and a 2-by-6-foot cement box culvert at 95 Rose Lane, is designed to alleviate draining issues along several roads. The wider drainage pipes will allow the water to flow faster toward the final desired location in the Noroton River. The drainage outlet will be behind Park Lane.

"But for the Town of Darien to undertake any improvements, this is the first step to anything," Gouin said.

As a homeowner, Donald Peck, who lives on Hamilton Lane, said he feels "his wrists are tied behind his back."

In order to appeal any flood lines to FEMA, a homeowner would have to hire an engineer to do an analysis, which must be done before the flood lines are adopted in September.

"I do apologize if you feel you haven't been prepared for the letters of map revision," Stevenson said. "I can assure you there was an ample public process."

There were eight public meetings between 2008 and 2010 concerning the new data Milone & MacBroom was collecting.

"You were asking for us to give you information to help you understand why your properties were flooding," Stevenson said.

Stevenson said that if the town did not have access to the "quality data" Milone & MacBroom produced and a storm flooded a home, "you would be at my door asking why I didn't warn you yesterday."

Once the Board of Selectmen opted to send the letter of map revision, the data Milone & MacBroom collected had to be sent to FEMA to evaluate.

The new flood maps take affect Sept. 9.

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews