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Downtown crisis: Snoqualmie considers impact of sweeping flood insurance reform
The Biggert-Waters Act was meant to make flood insurance more realistic and more stable.
But the reform act could have the unintended consequence of blighting the low-lying urban areas of the Valley, several speakers warned at last Monday’s Snoqualmie City Council meeting.
Now, Snoqualmie’s government may reach out to its representatives in Congress to help ease the burden of spiking flood insurance rates on older buildings.
Richelle Rose, a project manager for river and floodplains with King County’s Water and Land Resources Division, briefed the council on the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which changed the way the National Flood Insurance Program is run.
The act required the government to raise rates to reflect the real risk and costs of flooding. Starting last fall, new premiums hammered the pocketbooks of owners of older, non-elevated homes in the Valley. Angela Donaldson, an agent at Snoqualmie’s Farmer’s Insurance Agency, told the Record that the average cost of flood insurance for such homes in Snoqualmie jumped by seven times, doubling or tripling in North Bend.
As government-subsidized policies go away, owners of older homes, built before 1984 in Snoqualmie and North Bend, or 1978 in King County, need documents called elevation certificates to sell their home or replace a lapsed flood policy. These documents, done by a surveyor or engineer, confirm how risky the building is based on the latest flood map. Having a new certificate, which costs between $500 and $1,000, will save on premiums if a home is higher than the flood level.
But, as Donaldson told the council, “Just getting that elevation certificate is not a guarantee that you’re not going to get an increase. If you’re actually low, you may see more of an increase.”
Elizabeth Gildersleeve, who works with Donaldson at Farmer’s, has been fielding calls from worried homeowners, and from home buyers spooked by steep new flood insurance policies.
“These premiums, particularly for homes in the city of Snoqualmie, are very high—four to six thousand dollars is not unusual, particularly for homes with a crawl space or basement,” Gildersleeve said.
“What we’re going to start to see are people who cannot afford to continue to live in their homes,” she warned. “We’ve started saving flood quotes for homes for sale, because you’re getting called by five or six different people who are walking away from it.… They can’t afford to obtain a loan if they’re going to pay four or five thousand a year for flood insurance.
“Do what you can at your level to address it,” she urged the council, “and help these people that are calling me, and are scared that they’re going to lose their homes.”
Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson said the city is talking with neighboring North Bend about contacting all of the Valley’s representatives in Congress to press for relief.
Nationally, flood mitigation has led to “costs that were absolutely unacceptable that they ever got into the system,” said Larson.
“Now, the political reaction is taxpayers shouldn’t be absorbing these costs, so let’s pass it along to all the folks impacted by flooding,” the mayor said. “It’s fundamentally unfair, and it’s going to have a devastating effect on all the efforts we’ve done over the past decade for downtown redevelopment… investments in retail centers and residential neighborhoods. It’s a very serious issue.”
The city is planning a council workshop on the matter, and continuing its efforts to help owners raise downtown buildings
Rose said the county is working with the city on assistance, providing elevation certificates, technical help and grants for elevations and buyouts.
To date, Snoqualmie has raised 132 homes and bought up 47 lots, while the flood district has raised 42 homes and purchased 25 lots in Snoqualmie’s vicinity.
More planned buyouts—more than 300—and elevations in the Upper Valley could cost up to $30 million, which the flood control district, with an annual budget of about $6 million, is “incrementally crunching away at,” Rose said. The district is considering putting priority for elevation grants for homeowners with spiking premiums.
Cities and the county are rated under a Community Rating System, or CRS, a voluntary program that pushes cities to pursue the latest best practices in flood protection. Cities get their flood insurance premiums discounted as a results. Snoqualmie currently holds a rating of five, which results in a 25 percent discount. King County has a rating of two, which makes for a 40 percent discount. The city is in the process of studying the latest version of the codes with an eye on improving its rating.
The county is also exploring a wider study of the Snoqualmie river basin, working with stakeholders in the Upper and Lower Valley to understand how the river has changed.
“The river is a living beast,” commented councilman Bryan Holloway. “Every flood is a little different.”
Congress is considering two bills that would delay the impact of Biggert-Waters. Of them, Senate Bill 1846 is nearer to passage.
That bill includes a six-month wait before homeowners are assessed the higher actual-risk rating, halting premiums until a national affordability study and other pre-requisites are complete.
“What we need to do in our communities is not going to end if these bills go through,” Gildersleeve said. “These bill are just buying time to come up with a plan. It gives us time to work with homeowners, to elevate and do other mitigations, develop plans, so we don’t end up with ghost towns.”
• To learn about insurance reform, visit www.fema.gov/nfip. Homeowners with questions about whether they are affected should contact their insurance agent or local city’s building department.