Changing floodplain, changing attitudes

The City of Kent updated floodplain boundaries for the first time since the 1970s. The new floodplain is a drastic change and affects numerous Kent residents.

By Julie Selby & Melinda Stephan

ODNR, Division of Soil & Water Resources. Photo credit: soilandwater.ohiodnr.gov
ODNR, Division of Soil & Water Resources. Photo credit: soilandwater.ohiodnr.gov

Kent’s topography is changing, and with it residents’ attitudes.

City Engineer Jim Bowling’s office has been working on updating Kent’s floodplain for about five years now.

Update desperately needed

“Since 1977, there has been no update to any of the hydraulic calculations to the city of Kent,” Bowling said. This means Kent hasn’t had an accurate picture of how intense rain or flooding could affect its residents in nearly 40 years.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ (ODNR) Division of Soil and Water Resources’ website reports that 75 percent of Ohio counties chose to update their floodplain borders, and for good reason: “Properly managed floodplains can increase property values and expand recreational opportunities, while reducing direct and indirect costs associated with flood hazards, erosion, and stormwater; improving groundwater recharge and water quality; and providing valuable wildlife habitat. Current flood data is important for community officials and the private sector to make wise land use decisions.”

Redrawing floodlines

In a Dec. 2 city council meeting, Bowling said in 2010 his office began the process of evaluating and—where necessary—redrawing floodplain lines.

Jim Bowling, city engineer, left. Anne Moneypenny, Kent Area Chamber of Commerce, right. Photo credit kentcentralgateway.com
Jim Bowling, city engineer, left. Anne Moneypenny, Kent Area Chamber of Commerce, right. Photo credit kentcentralgateway.com

Bowling believes redrawing floodplain borders is a necessary part of keeping residents safe. He adds that failure on the city’s part to update floodplain lines comes with the risk of being put on probation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In turn this could raise premiums and make it impossible for Kent residents to get any flood insurance whatsoever.

“It’s an extreme thing, but if the community does not do the management required, it puts structures at risk that then the federal government is going to have to insure,” Bowling said. “You can understand why they would then say, ‘we won’t participate.’ And they won’t let us participate any longer.”

Nervous residents

City council member Melissa Long pointed out that residents left previous meetings about changing floodplain lines “wanting to know what the city could do to help them get their pieces of property—10, 15 feet of their backyard that go down into the floodplain line—what could we do to help them get out of that situation. And that’s what they wanted to know: ‘what could the city do? What could council do? What are you going to do for us?’”

Melissa M. Long, Kent city council member since 2014. Photo credit: kentohio.org/gov2/council.asp
Melissa M. Long, Kent city council member since 2014. Photo credit: kentohio.org/gov2/council.asp

Some Kent residents were worried that if their properties went from outside the floodplain to inside, they may be forced to buy insurance, take the risk of not being covered in the event of a flood, or even to face a decrease in property value.

“Based on the way the maps are laid out right now, there are no structures that appear to be in the new floodplain limits. Flood insurance is only mandated by the National Flood Insurance Program if your structure is in the floodplain, not if the property is,” Bowling said.

Bowling noted that a resident’s lender may require flood insurance even in cases where the federal government does not, but pointed out that “if that’s the case, they can always shop for a different lender.”

Council quells fears

However, city council member John Kuhar knows his community was concerned about the change, especially at first. “The reason people fear the floodplain is because they think it will lower the property values. They think some lenders, they insist you buy federal flood insurance if you’re in a floodplain area,” Kuhar said.

John Kuhar has been a member of Kent city council for just over 10 years. Photo credit kentohio.org
John Kuhar has been a member of Kent city council for just over 10 years. Photo credit kentohio.org

However Kuhar noted that in most cases hiring a surveyor to assess a property and declare that no structures are at risk of flooding would alleviate this—likely larger—expense for residents.

“If you would look at this map closely, most of these houses who found out they were in a floodplain, the floodplain is at the very rear of their property and none of their structures are in the floodplain. So the risk of damage by flood is probably non-existent.”

Kuhar took us to a home in the Forest Lakes development, an area where nearly one-third of the residents have property that will go from outside the floodplain to inside it. The owner of a home on Windward Lane who preferred not to be identified said the process has been frustrating.

After getting a notice from the Department of Homeland Security which said only that his home would now be in the floodplain area (but offered no instructions or resources to assist the homeowner), he began making calls to his city council representatives and officials asking for help. This particular homeowner said that although he believes the remapping is a good thing overall, it was handled poorly.

Part of the Forest Lakes subdivision. The line of houses at the bottom of the photo abutting the water represents some of those affected by the changing floodplain lines in Kent. Photo credit: GoogleMaps.com
Part of the Forest Lakes subdivision. The line of houses at the bottom of the photo abutting the water represents some of those affected by the changing floodplain lines in Kent. Photo credit: GoogleMaps.com

But this resident and his neighbors have rallied to make sure others don’t have the same difficulties he is encountering. The Forest Lakes Homeowners Association has helpful information regarding floodplain insurance and maps on its website, encouraging residents to keep themselves informed.