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Flood map issue centers on insurance mandate

About 330 Pendleton homeowners have received notices that they must buy federally mandated flood insurance because of new flood zone maps that Supervisor James A. Riester said the Town Board was forced to approve.

Riester said the town continues to seek support from federal lawmakers to make the Federal Emergency Management Agency revise its maps to remove most of the newly added homes from the flood zones.

"We've spent $100,000 on this already, but it's important," Riester said. "Who's going to want to buy a house when you have to pay an extra $150 a month?"

Actually, it could be more than that. Philip Wilcox, a resident of the Pendale subdivision off Tonawanda Creek Road, said mortgage holders have been telling homeowners there that they must buy flood insurance costing up to $2,700 a year.

Riester said FEMA's study failed to take into account that the Erie Canal runs through the town, branching off from Tonawanda Creek.

He said the flood level that FEMA calculated is about a foot higher than the elevation of the canal gate that is opened to let water flow each spring.

In other words, if there were a flood in southern Pendleton, the water would simply run off into the canal, Riester contends.

"They didn't take the canal into account," Riester said.

"FEMA did not omit its presence," Donald Caetano, a FEMA spokesman, said in an e-mail to The Buffalo News on Tuesday. He said FEMA relied on information about the canal from a previous flood map study.

This was confirmed by a letter from David M. Britton, the town engineer, to FEMA in 2009. He complained about FEMA's use of 1989 figures for the canal while gathering new data for Bull Creek and Town Ditch No. 2.

"The only new detailed studies performed within the Town of Pendleton were for Town Ditch #2 and Bull Creek," Caetano confirmed Tuesday. "They do not drain toward the canal."

Riester said the Town Board approved the map in September.

"We had to, because if you don't, you can never get any FEMA aid in your town," the supervisor said.

Caetano said he could not confirm that claim. Riester said Britton received that word from FEMA. Britton was unavailable to comment Tuesday.

Pendleton received FEMA aid after the October Surprise snowstorm of 2006, Riester said, and it wanted to make sure that it would be eligible in case of future natural disasters.

"So they have that hammer over your head," Riester said.

A November 2009 letter from Mary A. Colvin, acting director of FEMA's Mitigation Division, said FEMA was aware that it was using an outdated "hydraulic model" for the Tonawanda Creek area but was unable to upgrade the software because of "funding constraints."

"We will add Tonawanda Creek in Niagara and Erie counties to our database of unmet needs for future study/mapping consideration," Colvin wrote.

Wilcox called that "egregious."

He said, "It's like your homeowner's insurance going up because your bathtub might overflow. And you say, 'I have a plug I can pull,' and they say, 'Sorry, we didn't have money to include your plug in our study.' "

Other towns, such as Lockport and Wheatfield, hired engineering firms to successfully challenge many of FEMA's flood zone calculations, which were done with laser-guided tools from low-flying planes.

Riester said Pendleton tried that, too.

"We couldn't find any wrong," Riester said. "For once, the federal government got it right."

Riester said residents who find only part of their property in the flood zone -- for example, the backyard but not the house -- can fill out a form for their bank to try to escape the flood insurance requirement, but not all banks accept that.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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