Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Joe Gershaneck, president of the Mariners Green Homeowners Association, No. 2, shows some of the homes at the Marina Lagoon that will once again be subject to federally mandated flood insurance rates in San Mateo.
Residents on the Marina Lagoon in San Mateo whose homes have even a single pillar in the water are required to carry flood insurance for the entire property.
After years of high flood insurance premiums and working with San Mateo city officials to fund millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements, most homeowners in the Marina Lagoon neighborhood were thrilled to be removed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency Flood Insurance Rate Map, or FIRM, in 2012.
However, relief was shockingly short-lived for about 140 homeowners who recently discovered they will again be subject to costly insurance mandates as FEMA will release a new countywide map in 2015.
“Are we on a slippery slope? Did they find another way to get 100 homes back in the flood zone? Will they find another way to get more homes back in the flood zone?” asked Joe Gershaneck, president of the Mariners Green Homeowners Association, No. 2.
Gershaneck said he bought his home in 1977 and was dismayed to learn he and many others who live on the lagoon are being dragged back under FEMA’s control. The arbitrary maps are troubling, Gershaneck said, as each property is so unique that one person may be required to purchase insurance for their entire home because they have a single pillar in the water while their immediate neighbor may be exempt.
Homeowners in the Mariners Green 1, 2 and 3, whose homes have an attached dock or deck or pillars in the water will be required to carry flood insurance on the entire property and there is little the city can do, said Susanna Chan, deputy director of the San Mateo Public Works Department.
For about 30 of the lagoon residents, it’s possible detaching their docks or decks from the main portion of their home will lift the insurance mandate, Chan said. However, there is no present remedy for the remaining 110 homes, Gershaneck and Chan said.
Kathleen Schaefer, a FEMA engineer who oversees Northern California, said the agency’s standards require homes with even one pillar in water, like those on the Marina Lagoon, to obtain flood insurance and that refining the map is an ongoing process.
“We’re always striving to make our maps more accurate and it happens, occasionally, when ... in the process of changing the map there was something overlooked. And if when we find it, if that situation arises, we want to be sure that we correct it. Because we try … and reflect the true flood risk,” Schaefer said.
For the first time, the 2015 FIRM will reflect residual flooding, which is when a storm event would lead to creeks and drainage flooding, Chan said.
“We’ve been basically cheated, simply put. Because the work to establish a bar was intense and it involved the city putting together a concise plan that would attain the requests stated by FEMA. And then to have them come back, less than two years later, and come back and say the bar is higher, … I think that is absolutely ludicrous for someone to just arbitrarily take that up,” Gershaneck said.
For more than 10,000 San Mateo homeowners, flood insurance woes started in 2001 when FEMA drafted the city’s first FIRM. It identified properties that are subject to tidal flooding during a 100-year storm, a federal standard for areas where there is a 1 percent chance of a major flood every year, and required those with federally backed mortgages to obtain flood insurance.
The city spent years 13 years and $23 million undergoing pump station and levee repairs at the behest of FEMA to remove about 8,000 of the homeowners out of the map and is currently in the process of working to remove another 1,200.
Despite the hard work, there is little the city can now do for the 140 Marina Lagoon homeowners, Chan said.
“It was a flat-out shock because of the reality that when you do something that you’re asked to do … and all those t’s were crossed and all those i’s were dotted and those goals were obtained, and then to be told those goals weren’t good enough, that’s dismay,” Gershaneck said.
To make matters worse, Gershaneck said lagoon homeowners were able to cancel their flood insurance in 2012 and the lapse in coverage will likely lead to even higher premiums than before.
City engineering and flood control
The lagoon is below the level of the Bay, fed by about four creeks and serves as a flood control facility designed to receive storm water, Chan said. It’s well controlled by pumps that allow the city to lower the water level in the winter and bring it back up in the summer for recreational purposes, Chan said.
Chan and Gershaneck argue FEMA’s analysis is flawed as the summer lagoon level replicates what it would be during a 100-year flood that would hit during a winter storm.
“We talked to FEMA and they understand that, but they have that requirement or they have that policy that if you have attached structures or attached components that extend into the water, that’s a special flood zone and the entire structure is required to carry flood insurance,” Chan said. “So I don’t think we have any homes that are at risk of being flooded, there’s just that requirement that insurance companies have to follow.”
FEMA regulations are uniformly established throughout the country by Congress and the emergency agency must ultimately use taxpayer money when responding to natural disasters and helping those who don’t carry insurance, Schaefer said.
“Across the nation, floods represent the largest disaster losses, the most expensive disaster losses,” Schaefer said. “I think it’s important that everyone recognize we’re adjacent to the Bay and although we haven’t seen a major flood event in the recent past, we do know that they can occur and floods do happen.”
‘Blasphemy and a sin’
Rich Hedges lives near the lagoon and helped spearhead the Shoreview neighborhood’s efforts to form an assessment district that raised $7.5 million to help the city with infrastructure repairs before 2012. Hedges said he won’t personally be pulled back into the map, but FEMA’s mandates are unfairly forcing select homeowners to pay for disasters across the country.
“This is more of an issue of politics, the FEMA flood insurance in my opinion, than it is about reality,” Hedges said. “And it’s always troubling to see a neighbor disadvantaged, but to see neighbors disadvantaged that have worked so hard to not only help themselves, but to help others seems that it’s a blasphemy and a sin.”
Even more troubling for Hedges are the ramifications high flood insurance rates could have on the city as a whole. If more than 50 percent of a home is damaged in another incident or if a property owner wants to remodel, they wouldn’t be allowed to rebuild unless it was above the flood zone, Hedges said.
It’s a problem with which the city must rightfully concern itself, Hedges said, as increasing insurance rates are bad for the entire community.
“My main concern is in North Shoreview and in other areas that when this flood insurance gets so expensive, people will start leaving their homes,” Hedges said. “Those people with high mortgages, it’s a working class area, people are already trapped, this is a serious problem for the city.”
The city is continuing with efforts to remove about 1,200 homeowners in the North Shoreview and North Central neighborhoods from the map. As part of the budget, the City Council approved $1 million toward funding the design of improvements at two pump stations and along the Coyote Point Bayfront levees, which was estimated to ultimately cost around $22.5 million in 2009 and 2010, Chan said. There is no identified source of funding at this time and the affected communities will likely need to form another assessment district, Chan said.
For residents who were forewarned and bought flood insurance before of the release of the FIRM in 2001, their insurance rates typically started in the low to mid-hundreds and increased over time. For Cynthia Newton, a North Shoreview resident, her payments started at $300 a year in 2001 but it jumped to $1,200 as of last year.
Then there are stories like Dave and Dana Jordan who bought their home in late 2012 and paid nearly $7,000 for flood insurance this year.
“It’s just not right. Nobody is better off than the least of us,” Hedges said. “And I think a city should be judged on how they help the least of the people in the city and especially the least of the people in the city that are trying to do the right thing.”
For more information visit cityofsanmateo.org or www.fema.gov.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106