Building in a flood plain

Municipalities have the power to ban it


DELAWARE RIVER VALLEY — Despite three major floods in the past two years, some developers are still eager to build in flood plains. The reason is simple: people have historically paid premium prices for riverside or streamside houses. Salvatore Paolillo, a developer from Long Island, NY owns 24 two-acre lots in the Town of Tusten, NY. Fourteen of those lots are located on the banks of the Upper Delaware River. Paolillo estimates that he might get as much as $350,000 for each riverfront lot and somewhat less for the others. It is a project that has dragged on since the land was approved for subdivision in 1987.

The big hurdle now is that the New York Department of Transportation must give approval for a private railroad crossing, which provides access to the lots, to be upgraded to a pubic railroad crossing. Without that upgrade, Tusten officials will prohibit Paolillo from building homes on the lots.

But if the upgrade goes through, Paolillo, or anyone who buys a lot, will be permitted to build even though, according to Tusten building inspector Dave Sparling, most of the lots are located in a flood plain.

To build in a flood plain, a builder must follow regulations established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Those regulations include building the first floor at least a foot above the level of the 100-year flood plain. According to Bill Nechamen, the coordinator of the National Flood Insurance Program for New York State, to comply with FEMA specifications in a flood plain, builders typically use a raised crawl space that is vented, so water can easily pass in and out of the space. Utilities are placed on the first floor of the house, not in the basement. Nechamen also said that appropriate fill material can be used to elevate the level of the site, and homes can be built on slabs.

Nechamen explained that there is a difference between a flood plain and a floodway. The floodway is the inner area of the flood plain, where floodwaters are deep and fast moving. Building is strictly prohibited in floodways. Sparling said the only way to determine if a lot is located in a floodway is through a survey. He said if Paolillo moves forward with his development plan, the building permits would include elevation certificates, which will certify that the buildings will not be located in floodways.

It is possible in New York for towns to exceed federal flood plain guidelines and further restrict or altogether ban the construction of any new buildings in flood plains.

Dr. William Pammer, commissioner of planning and community development in Sullivan County, said that in the wake of the flooding at the end of June, some towns are considering moratoriums on new construction in flood plains, although none have adopted them yet. When Pammer works with towns updating their comprehensive plans, he urges them to adopt outright bans on new construction in flood plains.

Clearly, outright bans would be extremely unpopular with many people who own flood plain land.

Tom Shepstone, a planning consultant based in Honesdale, PA said that each situation has to be looked at individually. He said an industrial building in a narrow river valley might not be reasonable, because during a flood, trees could jam up against the building and cause even worse flooding problems. However, in a much wider flood plain, an agricultural building built to FEMA specifications might be reasonable, because it would not cause any additional problems during a flood.

Shepstone said that Pennsylvania townships also have the ability to ban building in flood plains, but he is not aware of any that have done so in Wayne or Pike counties.

While it has not been banned, building in flood plains is clearly on the minds of municipal officials throughout the river valley. Ed Lagarenne, the code enforcement officer in Damascus, PA, said he frequently advises builders and homebuyers not to build in flood plains. Sometimes they heed the advice and sometimes they don’t.