FEMA: Enclosure inspection program done on June 28
Agency still wants plan for un-inspected

By Steve Estes

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has finally agreed that the controversial and almost universally despised pilot insurance renewal inspection program for lower level enclosures can come to an end.

And that end is in less than 30 days.

In a letter to Monroe County officials last week, FEMA declared that the pilot program, which started more than a decade ago and was supposed to run for seven years, will end on June 28.

During the program, which required local inspections of homes with possible non-compliant lower level enclosures when those homes came up for flood insurance renewal, 5,686 units were identified as needing those inspections.

According to FEMA records, only 2,888 of those homes have been inspected. Those that have been through the process, or were found to be compliant without an inspection, is 2,645. There are currently 469 properties either in the code enforcement process, have had insurance canceled for failure to submit to an inspection, or are still within the one year grace period to attain compliance. There are 41 homes still in the pipeline awaiting initial inspection.

But it is the 2,798 homes that FEMA claims still need pilot program inspections that have FEMA officials concerned.

And that means FEMA wants some type of program from the county to address those homes that have yet to undergo inspections, but have been identified as probably needing one.

That number is probably high, says County Building Official Jerry Smith.

As part of a comprehensive program to address FEMA’s concerns county officials will first weed out those properties that don’t need the inspections, either because they have no enclosure, or aren’t required to get an inspection due to date of construction or other reasons.

County planners sent FEMA notice nearly two years ago that as far as they were concerned, the county’s obligations under the pilot program had been met once they notified all the possible owners that they needed to schedule an inspection.

But FEMA officials may be looking for more.

“Please provide us with a remedial plan of action for these structures to be brought into compliance, to the maximum extent practicable,” wrote Susan Wilson, Chief of the Floodplain Management and Insurance Branch, Mitigation Division for FEMA.

Christine Hurley, county growth management director, said the division will be working on a comprehensive program that will address both the remaining pilot program inspections and other areas of concern FEMA had following a community assist visit in late February this year.

Some of those concerns included inaccurate forms on elevation certificates, lack of proper documentation for homes in high velocity flood zones, lack of ongoing maintenance plans for structures that have been flood-proofed and lack of paperwork on newly permitted manufactured and modular homes.

“Those issues are already being addressed, and in some cases the fix is already implemented,” said Smith.

Neither Smith nor Hurley said they have a plan formulated to address the remaining 2,800 homes that FEMA claims still need inspected.

One of the problems with getting those inspections, says Hurley, is that the property owner must request an inspection. The county doesn’t have the authority to do the inspection without owner approval.

Some of the homes that have been identified as needing inspections may have canceled flood insurance after the notifications. Some homes may have sold and the notice didn’t go with the sale. Still others may have shopped for and obtained private, non-subsidized flood insurance to avoid the inspections,which are only mandated on homes that have FEMA subsidies for flood insurance before the policy can be renewed.

In that case, said Smith, some of those properties may be out of the county’s reach for inspection efforts.

That shouldn’t, however, affect Monroe County’s standing in the National Flood Insurance Program, a standing that FEMA threatened when it mandated that the pilot program be put in place.

Homes that use federally backed mortgages are required to obtain flood insurance as part of the mortgage package. If FEMA had booted Monroe County from the program, mortgages could have dried up, or notes been called by the lenders.

“Any time a property that might be non-compliant is beyond our control, I don’t believe FEMA will hold the entire community accountable for that,” said Smith. “If FEMA sees that we are putting a program in place, making an effort to proceed, they won’t hold the entire community accountable for the actions of a small percentage.”

A couple of years back, the state Legislature killed one of the county’s enclosure inspection programs, making it illegal to inspect other areas of the home if a building permit is applied for on a matter not relating to the enclosure. FEMA asked for a replacement program,but without the authority to mandate inspections, county planners implemented the current Certificate of Compliance Program. Under that program, homeowners can ask for a voluntary inspection to ensure compliance with FEMA flood plain rules. Once the property is deemed compliant,the county issues a certificate of compliance that is attached to the deed, letting potential buyers know that there are no flood plain issues with the property.

“This was a program to make homes more salable,” said Hurley. “It eliminates the consternation of buyers when it comes to possible enclosure violations.”

County officials received the FEMA letter last week, so “We’re just now beginning to digest everything in it,” said Hurley.

The letter states that the county cannot issue any more flood plain variances to allow habitable space below the flood plain. That has been done twice in the last three years.

It is habitable space that FEMA finds offensive.

Lower level enclosures are supposed to be used for parking, building ingress and egress and limited storage. The county expanded the definition of limited storage a few years ago so that it covers items that would normally be associated with the normal routines of a residential structure. Prior to that, the allowance was mostly for yard tools and gas cans.

Hurley said she expects to present the letter to the Board of County Commissioners in the next two months, and offer a range of options on how to appease FEMA.

“Our goal is to work together with FEMA to find mutually beneficial answers to FEMA’s concerns,” she said.

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