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FEMA raises flood issues in borough; report made in 2014 was never acted upon; effects not yet clear

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 4/24/19

In March 2014, Middletown borough received a report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency concerning potential violations of regulations for properties in the 100-year flood plain that the …

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FEMA raises flood issues in borough; report made in 2014 was never acted upon; effects not yet clear

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In March 2014, Middletown borough received a report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency concerning potential violations of regulations for properties in the 100-year flood plain that the borough was supposed to investigate.

The borough never took any action, says Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter, who became borough manager in May 2016.

Now, five years later, FEMA is telling the borough that it must start making some progress toward resolving the issues that were raised in the report, Klinepeter told borough council April 16.

Klinepeter said there is no deadline for when the borough must resolve close to 40 potential violations. Nor has anyone from FEMA “laid out” what the potential consequences are for the property owners, or for the borough, if the borough does not resolve the issue to FEMA’s satisfaction, Klinepeter said.

Easily remedied?

In Middletown, the 100-year flood plain includes an area that hugs the borough’s east to southeast to southwest borders, along the areas of town that lie closest to Swatara Creek to the east and southeast, and closest to the Susquehanna River to the southwest.

Much of the borough’s First Ward in the southwest part of town lies within the 100-year flood plain, according to a map of the flood plain that can be found on the FEMA website.

The flood plain is not noted on the current Middletown borough zoning map that is posted on the borough website.

The 37 properties considered by FEMA in its report, while all in the 100-year flood plain, are not all clustered in one particular area, but are located throughout Middletown, Klinepeter told the Press & Journal in an interview Thursday.

Klinepeter characterized many of the potential violations as easily remedied, such as sheds that need to be anchored or outside fuel tanks that must be properly secured.

Matt Miller, the borough’s compliance and technical services officer, told council on April 16 that FEMA requires sheds in the 100-year flood plain be anchored because, otherwise, if the shed floats away in a flood it may end up blocking a bridge or another physical structure.

Similar to an ice jam, this can obstruct the waterway and cause flooding to be worse than it otherwise would be, Miller said. A kit to anchor a shed to FEMA specifications can be purchased at a home improvement store for about $150, Miller said.

Some of the potential violations that FEMA identified by looking at the borough files have to do with documentation that should be in the file, but isn’t, Klinepeter said.

“These homeowners might have the information we need,” he said, such as a certificate of elevation; or a damage assessment, if for example the property was damaged from flooding during Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011, and funds were then received from flood insurance to pay for repairing the damage.

If no damage assessment exists or can be found, the borough will have to do the best that it can working with the property owner to re-create an assessment of the damage, Klinepeter said.

Grandfathered properties

There are many other properties in the 100-year flood plain in Middletown besides the 37 identified in the Community Assistance Visit report, or “CAV plan,” as having potential violations.

However, Klinepeter said these properties have nothing to worry about, as they are “grandfathered” when it comes to having to comply with the FEMA flood requirements.

As Klinepeter explained it, unless the property owner applies for a building permit for a home renovation or expansion project that exceeds 50 percent of the assessed value of the property, the property owner need not worry about whether he or she is in compliance.

Applying for a permit for a project that exceeds 50 percent of the property’s assessed value would act as a “trigger,” Klinepeter said, and any situations in which the property is out of compliance with FEMA requirements would have to be corrected, before the borough can approve the permit.

That could include some of the same potential violations that are detailed in the CAV report, Klinepeter noted.

Also, in the case of furnaces and other mechanical systems that are located in an “exposed” basement — these systems might have to be elevated to higher ground if FEMA determines that the basement is below flood plain elevation, Klinepeter said.

But again, he emphasized that for properties in the 100-year flood plain that are not included in the CAV report, these requirements would only come into play if the property owner applies for a building permit for an expansion or renovation that exceeds 50 percent of the assessed value of the property.

Dates back to 2014

The CAV report was generated from a 2014 visit to Middletown and to the borough manager at the time, Tim Konek, by two FEMA officials, Klinepeter said.

The report focuses on 37 properties that lie within the 100-year flood plain, an area designated by FEMA.

As determined by FEMA, the 100-year flood plain is an area that has a 1 percent probability of having a “flood event” in any given year.

At 20 of the properties, FEMA identified potential violations from a review of the information that the borough had on file for each one of these homes, Klinepeter said.

As for the remaining 17 properties, these potential violations were identified by an inspection of the properties as the FEMA officials accompanied by Konek were driving throughout Middletown, conducting what Klinepeter called a “windshield/dashboard review.”

He emphasized that the CAV report refers to “potential violations” that the borough was supposed to investigate, in order to determine if the violations are real.

“That doesn’t mean we have 37 violations,” he said. Klinepeter also believes that up to four or five of the properties may no longer have a structure on the site, meaning that these potential violations would have “resolved themselves.”

Klinepeter said he was alerted to the existence of the CAV report in 2018 when a FEMA representative came to see him.

Klinepeter said he does not know why nothing apparently was done by the borough from receipt of the report in March 2014 until now.

Konek, the former borough manager who resigned at the end of December 2015, did not respond to a request for comment from the Press & Journal.

Staff attends training

Klinepeter said he did not have the staff resources to properly deal with the report until after Miller was brought on board in January.

Miller, who performs a variety of functions as a special projects officer reporting directly to Klinepeter, had experience working with FEMA flood issues in other communities.

The borough also recently sent him to training where he learned more about FEMA requirements and expectations when it comes to issues related to the 100-year flood plain, and flooding in general.

The direction from the FEMA representative who met with Klinepeter in 2018 was to “start working on it,” Klinepeter said. “When I come back again I want to see some improvement that we’ve made some progress.”

“He didn’t talk about ramifications,” Klinepeter continued, referring to the FEMA representative. “Although we do know from Matt being in training (that) if you don’t do things you don’t get a good rating from FEMA on your flood plain insurance. If you are in good standing, folks will have a better chance of getting better premiums for their flood insurance.”

“We do know we are going to have to address it, and that is what we are preparing to do,” Klinepeter added. “I can tell you from my standpoint as long as I am here there are not going to be consequences from not doing what we are supposed to do. I don’t anticipate any consequences from FEMA.”

Making contact

The borough’s next step is to make some kind of contact with the people listed as owners of the 37 properties referenced in the CAV report as having potential violations, Klinepeter said.

The borough is discussing internally how best to go about that — such as whether to send a letter to the property owner or to make a phone call.

Another possibility — one that Council President Angela Lloyd called for during the April 16 meeting — is to invite all of the property owners to a meeting, to ensure that the “same message” goes out to everyone at the same time.

Klinepeter also will consult on how best to handle the situation with Jim Diamond, an attorney with borough solicitor Eckert Seamans.

Eckert Seamans is also solicitor to Londonderry Township, where attorneys with the firm have been working closely with the township over the past several years regarding the township having to start enforcing its flood plain development ordinance on islands in the middle of the Susquehanna River.

In that case, FEMA said that the entire township was threatened with the loss of government-backed flood insurance, if the township did not act to bring the island lots into compliance.

That’s not so in Middletown, Klinepeter said.

The township situation involves people being “right in the river. They are in the floodway. We are talking about homes on dry ground in a flood plain, not in a floodway. That’s a whole different thing,” Klinepeter said. “FEMA’s rules are FEMA’s rules, but we are not in that same situation with these things here.”