Blaine County has little over a month to bring its river rules in line with federal standards, but the proposed suite of changes—including some that surpass baseline expectations—are drawing ire from real estate agents and riverside property holders.
Around 50 people showed up at the Old Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey on Tuesday afternoon to sound off against the revisions recommended by the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission, which came before the county commissioners for the first time.
The prospective changes aim to better define what can and can’t be done in the county’s Floodplain Overlay District—and make it easier for landowners to tell the difference. Some changes are more lenient, aiming to speed up and reduce costs related to the permitting process for common projects inside the floodplain.
Others, though, are stricter, and those were the main targets of public complaints. Two drew the most fire: a new provision that would require previously grandfathered properties to create a 10-foot natural buffer along the streambank for stabilization; and, the P&Z’s decision to extend a Federal Emergency Management Agency rule capping the cumulative value of work allowed on nonconforming buildings into perpetuity, a timeframe not specified by the agency.
Both proposals go beyond FEMA minimums, which are required for participation in its National Flood Insurance Program. Through a partnership with the state, the agency began a standard look at Blaine County’s floodplain management in July, according to John Graves, FEMA Region X branch chief for floodplain management and insurance.
“I liken it to doing a tune-up on your car,” Graves told the Idaho Mountain Express on Wednesday. “Every once in a while, you check the oil, change the spark plugs. That’s what we’re doing here: tuning up the ordinance.”
To spur compliance, FEMA has a carrot, and a stick. Jurisdictions that meet and exceed basic standards can choose to enter the agency’s Community Rating System, which scores local requirements in exchange for a discount on flood insurance. (On a scale of 10, the lowest, to 1, the highest, Blaine County sits at 7—good for 15 percent off policies.) That’s the carrot.
Those that don’t meet the baseline get the stick: suspension from the flood insurance program. On Tuesday, County Floodplain Manager Kristine Hilt told the commissioners that suspension is possible if the board doesn’t pass new rules by the end of 2018.
Graves said that’s not a FEMA deadline; for him and his team, suspension is a last resort.
“Are we going to kick them out in December or January? Probably not,” he said of the county. “Yes, they have to have a compliant code. We’ll continue to work with them to get there.
“If a community absolutely refuses to work with us—if the relationship becomes adversarial—suspension is a tool in my tool box. But, quite frankly, it’s a rarely used tool. It’s over in the corner, gathering rust.”
FEMA staff reviewed Blaine County’s existing code, and found no major issues. Most of its stipulations aim to clean up and standardize the language and definitions against possible loopholes, Graves said.
But through a months-long series of hearings at the P&Z level, Hilt called the current code “unworkable,” saying the Land Use Department’s practices often rely on administrative precedent, and not ordinances.
Many of the proposed changes, which passed the P&Z in a 6-1 vote Nov. 1, come from Land Use staff and County Engineer Jeff Loomis—not directly from FEMA.
That includes the 10-foot buffer—an addition that drew the loudest opposition before the board. Right now, properties developed prior to the 1991 passage of the current floodplain ordinance can maintain a yard right up to the river bank. Those built after that are subject to riparian setbacks established by that law—basically, an undisturbed band of vegetation of either 25, 50 or 75 feet, depending on the class of river a property abuts. As written, the new ordinance would require previously grandfathered properties to leave 10 feet untouched. (On Tuesday, the county didn’t have a count of how many the rule would affect.)
“For long-term private property protection, for the protection of the floodplain, this is a must in our code,” Hilt said. “We feel that 10 feet is not a lot to ask for to minimize the risk to the bank, and to downstream properties.”
Opponents of the change told the commissioners to expect more people to join them. They said that between slack season and the Thanksgiving holiday, few people—particularly second-home owners—were aware of the proposal until they received an email from Sun Valley Board of Realtor’s Government Affairs Director Bob Crosby over the weekend.
“I got panicked calls from several clients,” local lawyer Ed Lawson, who himself lives along a waterway, told the commissioners. “Certainly, you’re diminishing property value. The question is, if that’s going to be compensable [for landowners]. If it is, you’re not going to be able to afford it.”
Though not a FEMA standard or part of his agency’s recommendations, Graves supports the idea.
“Vegetation keeps the river from moving from point A to point B,” he said. “It’s the local community’s call—it’s not required—but in my opinion, it’s a good thing for mitigation.”
The language surrounding “substantial improvement”—that is, how much a landowner can work on a noncompliant home before it must be brought entirely up to code—is a FEMA standard. Noncompliance issues include a building situated too close to the river or below base flood elevation.
Per its rules, designed to incentivize compliance and limit so-called “repetitive loss” insurance policies, a landowner can’t spend more than 50 percent of the market value of a building to work on a nonconforming structure.
FEMA doesn’t specify a timeframe for those improvements—but Blaine County may. The proposed change would make that 50 percent cap cumulative, in perpetuity for the lifetime of the building, even when ownership changes hands.
While the buffer is more visible, that cap change might affect more properties—which has Crosby, the Realtor, worried. The commissioners plan to meet Tuesday, Dec. 4, from 1:30-3:30 p.m. to revisit the topic, but Crosby said he hopes they take more time.
“If FEMA is going to insist, we’ll live with it,” he said in a Wednesday interview. “But let’s not compound the problem. This is a difficult, difficult ordinance to figure out, because the changes are so exhaustive. You can’t get a grip on how it cumulatively affects your property.
“It’s one of the biggest pieces of legislation regarding property ownership we’ve seen in this county for years. And it deserves more time.”