By Rachel Brown Hackney
Thanks to Sarasota County’s voluntary participation in an initiative offered through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), Sarasota County property owners save $7 million a year on the cost of flood insurance.
That was the good news goods Charles Walter, senior manager of the county’s Stormwater Division, pointed out to the County Commission on Jan. 29.
The same day, the board voted unanimously to adopt a resolution approving the county’s revised Floodplain Management Plan and Program for Public Information. The last update of the plan was in 2015, Walter noted.
Property owners probably would pay twice as much per year if the county did not participate in the NFIP’s Community Rating System (CRS) Program, Commissioner Nancy Detert said in making the motion. “It’s an easy and good thing for us to do [this].”
Walter told the board members that CRS Program activities cost the county about $500,000 a year. Therefore, he said, the $7 million in savings on 38,402 flood insurance policies countywide is “a significant return on investment for the board.”
The county joined the NFIP in 1972, he noted. Then, in 1992, the county applied for and won approval to join the voluntary Community Rating System Program, which gives participants credits for their implementation of flood protection activities “that exceed the minimum standards of the NFIP,” a Jan. 29 staff memo explained.
For example, Walter noted, the county gets points for its requirement that the finished ground floor of any new construction in a floodplain has to be elevated sufficiently to reduce the risk of damage. The county also gets points for keeping track of the work of its Building Department staff in overseeing such construction, he added.
The focus is on reducing damage to insurable properties, he explained. “It’s really the property that was originally permitted under air” on which staff puts its attention, he said.
“The CRS is done for everything that’s in basically a special flood hazard [area], and we have quite a few of those in our community,” Walter said.
The flood insurance savings property owners realize are based on the community’s rating, he continued. “We’re rated a 5,” he added, “which is very good for the community. We’re one of the lowest rated counties in the state.”
As a result, Walter pointed out, property owners get a discount of about 25% on their flood insurance premiums.
The CRS Program includes mapping of flood-prone areas and public education and outreach, he continued.
Additionally, he explained, “We try and maintain our existing floodplain areas.” Through the utilization of regional facilities such as the Celery Fields stormwater project, he added, “We want to try to keep our floodwaters in the floodplains.”
A slide Walter showed the board said, “Floods are the #1 natural disaster in the United States.” The slide also noted, “Every home is at risk from some form of flooding. This can result from heavy rain or storm surges.”
The revised Floodplain Management Plan the commission approved on Jan. 29 says in its introduction that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “estimates that homes in high-risk areas have at least a 25% chance of flooding during a 30-year period. The National Weather Service estimates direct flood damages to property between 1985 and 2014 averaged approximately $7.96 billion per year (adjusted to 2014 dollars for inflation).”
Sarasota County has “more than 420 miles of rivers, streams, and canals,” the introduction continues. “In addition, there are 43 named lakes covering 2,091 acres, and over 70 square miles of estuaries and bays that support diverse habitats for plants and animals.”
The primary change in the revised Floodplain Management Plan before the commission for consideration on Jan. 29, Walter said, related to information sharing. County staff had been working on a multijurisdictional program to educate members of the public about how to protect themselves and their property. The Cities of Venice and North Port, he noted, “are doing a lot of information sharing …”
County staff itself undertakes outreach “on a very regular basis,” he pointed out, holding programs at libraries and community centers, for example.
Commissioner Michael Moran told Walter that he was on the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) in 2015, when the previous revision of the Floodplain Management Plan won commission approval. Moran then asked whether staff is making sure it will meet SWFWMD deadlines for submission of materials.
“There’s a fair amount of collaboration with SWFWMD,” Walter replied. “It’s not formally with the plan itself. But they do fund our drainage studies, and that is a big element of our programs.”
After Detert made her motion to adopt the new plan, Commissioner Alan Maio alluded to complaints county staff and the board members hear from the public about the Building Department’s strict implementation of requirements for construction in flood zones. People are inclined to want to enclose the ground levels of elevated homes, Maio said, even though FEMA requires those areas to remain in a state that will allow storm surge to flow through without impediment.
The Building Department makes no exceptions, Maio added. “This is how we preserve the insurance for everybody.”
“Thank you for bringing that up,” Walter told him. “That is always a real challenge … on a case-by-case basis.”