Grosse Pointe City hopes to keep homes out of flood plain

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published May 21, 2019

GROSSE POINTE CITY — Grosse Pointe City officials are hoping to keep some homeowners from being forced to purchase flood insurance that officials say they don’t actually need.

“FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) is proposing increasing the flood plain on our side of the lake by approximately 3 feet, which is pretty significant,” City Engineer Stephen Pangori, of Anderson, Eckstein and Westrick Inc., said during a May 13 City Council meeting.

Before the proposed changes, Pangori said, there was only one home in the City located in the flood plain. If the FEMA changes are implemented, he said 21 homes would be in the flood plain.

In 2017, FEMA announced plans to update the methods it uses to gauge flood hazard boundaries along the Great Lakes, which impacts the elevation and location of the flood hazard zone along the Lake St. Clair coastline, City Manager Pete Dame said. At that time, he said the City engaged AEW to do a survey of lakefront property elevations.

Based on the findings of that topographic survey that the City undertook about a year ago, Dame said the City was able to remove six homes out of the 21 from the flood plain by demonstrating that their elevation was higher than the FEMA assumption, but that still leaves about 15 homes facing the prospect of needing to add expensive flood insurance policies. Dame said that from their estimates, flood insurance would cost City homeowners another $5,000 annually.

In determining where the 100-year flood plain elevation should be located on Lake St. Clair, Pangori said FEMA is basing its new flood plain calculations on storm surge and wave run-up, predicting that waves will be 3 feet higher than they are now. But he said the height of waves “is determined by the depth of the water” and Lake St. Clair “is relatively shallow.”

City officials argue that the homes FEMA wants to add to the flood plain aren’t at risk of actually flooding. Dame noted that there’s no history of water flowing over the top of the seawall at these homes in the past or even now, when the lake is near its record high. Despite high winds and lake levels earlier this month that resulted in flooding in other communities along Lake St. Clair, Dame said none of the City’s lakefront homes had basement flooding.

“So, I think we’re right” that these homes actually have a low risk of flooding, Dame told the council. “It’s just proving (this) to FEMA.”

City Councilman John Stempfle questioned the need for flood insurance on City homes, considering the low risk of them experiencing lake flooding.

“Doesn’t FEMA have more important things to do?” he asked. “Isn’t (this) between a homeowner and their insurance company?”

City Attorney Chuck Kennedy noted that natural disasters elsewhere, such as Hurricane Katrina, have resulted in huge relief claims for the federal government.

“The government is losing a lot of money and … they want to expand the risk pool with a lot of low-risk houses,” Kennedy said.

Dame said the “indirect cost to the community” if flood insurance becomes a requirement is lower resale values on lakefront homes, which are some of the most expensive properties in the City.

“It potentially draws down the value of our lakefront properties, which draws down (property tax revenues),” he said.

And there’s a lot that federal flood insurance doesn’t cover. According to FEMA, flood insurance offers much more limited coverage for basements, crawl spaces and walkout basements. It does not, for example, cover basement carpeting or other floor coverings such as tile, personal property such as clothing and electronics, or items that might be covered by homeowners insurance, such as washers and dryers. Flood insurance also doesn’t cover basement sewage backups; coverage for these types of incidents is usually an option that people can purchase with their homeowners insurance policy.

The City has retained the services of Benton Harbor-based design firm Abonmarche, which has coastal engineering experience, to come up with options that could keep some or all of the remaining 15 homes out of the flood plain. The City has already done the topographic survey, and the next option would be a bathymetric survey, at an estimated cost of $5,000 to $15,000. Additional future options include wave run-up transect analysis and even changes to the physical shoreline, such as the construction of berms.

City Councilman Andrew Turnbull said the City plans on contacting impacted homeowners to see if they can share in the cost of additional studies that could keep them out of the flood plain. Dame said the engineers at Abonmarche “feel that FEMA does want to get it right,” so as long as the data supports the City’s assertion that these homes aren’t at a high flood risk, they should be able to be removed from flood plain designation.

But the research needs to be done now. Dame said FEMA plans on opening the 90-day public comment period this summer, so the City would need to collect its data before then.