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Clinic Reviews How New FEMA Maps Will Change VA Flood Policies

April 22, 2014
Flooding in Hampton Roads during Nor'Easter Ida. ©Olivia Hauser

Flooding in Hampton Roads during Nor’Easter Ida. ©Olivia Hauser

By Julia Robins, Virginia Sea Grant Student Correspondent

New floodplain maps could change the way Virginia’s localities handle flooding risk and flood insurance. Virginia Sea Grant-sponsored Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic (VCPC) at The College of William and Mary Law School is helping localities get ready.

The updated maps are part of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a voluntary program administered by FEMA, in which participating communities agree to adopt ordinances that work to reduce the risk of flooding. FEMA releases flooding maps called FIRMs (Flood Insurance Rate Map) that outline how land located in a floodplain, an area of land that is susceptible to or experiences flooding, should be managed and monitored. When FEMA issues new maps, as they’re expected to do for most coastal Virginia localities in the next couple of years, localities must review their ordinances to ensure they’re still in compliance with the minimum requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation is responsible for reviewing these communities’ ordinances, but with 54 coastal communities to evaluate, a small staff, and a short timeline, they’ve asked VCPC for some assistance.

“Ordinance review is such a good learning experience because traditional law school classes don’t teach students how to read ordinances and understand how they work and interplay with other statutes,” says Mary-Carson Stiff, the Graduate Fellow who helps coordinate the VCPC. “The students are getting excellent experience reading real law in Virginia and understanding how these laws work and don’t work together.”

The students also get to see first-hand the way in which localities interact with state government and agencies, observing how localities enact ordinances that help them administer programs at the state level.

In addition, the VCPC is hard at work on another major project with a program within NFIP, the Community Rating System (CRS). The CRS is a voluntary incentive program that encourages communities within the NFIP to exceed the minimum requirements of the NFIP. It does this by allowing communities to receive credit for activities that go above and beyond minimum requirements.

As a community gains credit, they can move to a higher class rating, in which ten is the lowest rating and one is the highest. Each time a community moves up a class rank, its flood insurance policy holders receive a 5% reduction on their annual premium. Simply joining CRS gives you a 5% reduction, but if a community makes it to class one, its policyholders can earn a 45% reduction.

CRS has been around since the 1990s, but with all the changes to the NFIP, getting flood insurance discounts through CRS is more important than ever. Previously, Congress subsidized flood insurance premiums, making it affordable to live in a floodplain. As Congress considers reducing and ultimately removing those subsidies, CRS will encourage communities to improve floodplain management and safety, while giving individual residents insurance discounts.

To guide coastal communities in the CRS strategies that might work best for our area to gain credits, the students will develop white papers. These white papers will make it easy to understand policy implications, legal considerations, the advantages of certain activities, and how to utilize these activities. The students are evaluating whether communities can gain further credit from any existing laws and programs that the CRS may not recognize yet.

“We hope this work directly benefits not only localities but also the public in general,” says Stiff. “We think the analysis and the legal research that we’re doing for the program will be incredibly beneficial if we’re helping localities and Virginians protect themselves against the threat of recurring flooding and sea level rise and also helping them save money to protect their property.”

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