ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca homeowners are used to dealing with higher tax assessments and the property taxes rising accordingly, as home values continue to rise and buyers line up whenever a home comes up for sale.

However, this year comes with a new and unpleasant surprise. The new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps rolling out portend a deluge of expenses, something many homeowners aren’t ready for.

The latest headache for hundreds of Ithaca property owners involves proposed revisions to the flood insurance maps used to determine the likelihood of flooding in and around Tompkins County. The latest updates greatly expand the areas of flood risk, into some very heavily populated neighborhoods within the City of Ithaca.

Just how bad could it be? Well, let’s ask someone who’s in the know. Sally Hoyt is a Vice-President at Tompkins Insurance, and has a reputation for being the “flood queen” of Tompkins County. She knows where it floods, how often it floods, and how much it’s going to cost a homeowner to live with the threat of floods.

“When I first saw this, my reaction was, this was going to be a problem for the city of Ithaca because it’s going to devalue the properties, because there’s so many properties going into the flood plain. It worries me that the owners of those properties will have to reduce asking prices in order to be able to sell. A lot of the property owners may not be able to afford the flood insurance,” said Hoyt.

“I guess it’s kind of a dual thing. First I’m thinking they can’t afford this, or they may not be able to afford this, and then add to it that if they want to sell their property, they may not be able to get what they thought they were going to get, or what the standard of the market would bring, because the cost of the flood insurance may be prohibitive,” Hoyt continued.

The immediate impact

The problem is multi-faceted. Existing homeowners will see a drop in property value that reduced what they could get for their properties if they choose to sell, as well as buy flood insurance if they still have a mortgage or plan to take out a home equity loan. Aspiring homeowners will be forced to pay thousands for flood insurance in order to get a mortgage, making housing even less affordable in a city strained by rising housing costs. So how did things get to this point? It’s a combination of bad timing and circumstance.

Cascadilla Gorge (Photo by Casey Martin)

So as we delve into this issue, let’s start off with something of a primer. Any homeowner with a mortgage is going to have homeowner’s insurance, protection of the property against damage and theft inside and out. Just like your car, the amount you pay for a policy is based on a number of risk factors. That includes the size and features of the home, its condition and its neighborhood, which takes into account things like crime rate.

However, homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover certain conditions. “Acts of God” natural disasters and acts of war aren’t reimbursable events. If you live in an area prone to earthquakes or, more pertinent to Ithaca, prone to floods, you typically need specialized insurance — in this case, flood insurance.

Let’s go into a little more detail about flood insurance here. If you’re in an area prone to flooding, chances are, your mortgage provider will demand you have it. But then we get to the question, how do we know an area is flood-prone? For that, insurers and homeowners turn to a Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM), published by the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Typically the map is provided alongside a Flood Insurance Study (FIS) report, created by a county-by-county process.

Reasonably, for over 22,000 mapped communities, it takes some time to update flood hazard mapping. Risk Mapping, Assessment and Planning (Risk MAP) updates are usually initiated through a combination of currently known flood risks, available data, and increases in development or local population.

Tompkins County’s maps were seriously outdated — the data was last revised in 1981. Since then, the population of Tompkins County has grown tens of thousands of people, more buildings and paved areas exist now, and climate change, defined in this case as updated climatological data of how often intense rainfall or ice jams occur, is a factor as well.

“It’s been 40 years. With things changing on the hills, we didn’t have as many parking lots or buildings there, as many housing developments. Everything runs downhill. Every time you build on the hills, you change the routing of the water or the way it gets absorbed. Now instead of getting absorbed, the water’s going into ditches, and sewer drains, that drain into the three major streams flowing into Ithaca. Ithaca is in a bowl; the buck stops with Ithaca,” said Hoyt.

The update process is fairly extensive, because they know that changing a house’s flood risk can really impact someone’s finances and home value. For every community, it’s a multi-year process of identifying flood sources and how they’ve changed in recent years, actual data collection, statistical modeling and analysis. A preliminary, updated FIRM is issued for initial comments, and a final consultation meeting is held with local authorities.

From there, FEMA initiates a publicly posted 90-day appeal period to debate findings with communities and their constituents, the appeals are resolved and the maps finalized, the final letter of determination is issued and then from there, there’s a six-month adoption period in which someone who may suddenly realize they’re now in a flood zone has to buy insurance.

Hoyt is fully cognizant that things can change with time. She grew up in Ithaca. She remembers when the skate park off Wood Street was the Cinderella softball fields, and how they would flood after every hard rain. The land where Wegman’s was built in the 1990s was a swamp next to the county fairgrounds.

“I do realize these areas are flood-prone. I do realize the volume of water coming into these tributaries coming into Ithaca is much greater than it used to be, due to topography and things on the hills. I’m not saying it should be in the flood zone, I’m just saying they’re going to have an effect,” said Hoyt.

“I think what’s going to happen is, and we’ve already seen this a little bit with those already in the flood plain, if the cost of the flood insurance is going to add $3,000 or $4,000 a year to their insurance costs, it may prohibit them from being able to buy or stay in that area,” Hoyt said. “A lot of this new area is lower to medium income where first-time homeowners like to buy. But if the costs are prohibitive because of the flood insurance, it’s going to affect anyone buying, which then affects the sellers selling for that price, if they will have to reduce the price to make the financing of that property be able to go through along with the cost of the flood insurance. The banks have guidelines, and I’m concerned that this could be a factor.”

New Maps

So anyway, about those maps. The big issue is faced by properties within the “AE” risk zone for flooding. The “AE” designation means a 1% chance of a property being flooded in a given year, or statistically speaking, it sits in a 1-in-100 year flood hazard area. Once a century, it would be expected that the property is flooded. That’s a statistical baseline – it could never happen in a given century, or it could happen more than once. But a quantified risk is still a quantified risk.

Here’s the updated map as planned for the city of Ithaca. Note that the city has two flood zones – the “A” zone, which are low-lying areas next to bodies of water and are usually the first to flood, and then the “AE” zones. The 1981 A and AE flood zones are shades of pink. The 2022 map uses yellow diagonal line shading for the “AE” Zone. An interactive ArcMap GIS version can be found here.

This is the part where your eyes take in just how much larger that 1% floodzone/1-in-100 year flood risk is. All of Southwest Ithaca and the Flats. Well into Fall Creek. Most of Northside. Large portions of Southside and even Downtown Ithaca. Thousands of residences and hundreds of commercial properties, that previously were not in a flood zone.

So here’s the key point here — if you’re in an “AE” zone, you have to have flood insurance. Flood insurance is not cheap. It can cost thousands of dollars, and it has to be renewed annually.

Side note for non-Ithaca readers, some other areas are also impacted by the revisions — the villages of Dryden and Freeville are in the same boat, and some properties on the east shore of Cayuga Lake were in fact taken out of flood zones, though Hoyt expressed disbelief at FEMA doing so. However, the value of properties affected in the city of Ithaca doubles the combined total of every other affected property in Tompkins County. The city’s neighborhoods make up the bulk of the impacted areas.

For our discussion, Hoyt looked up in her database five residential properties in the city of Ithaca, with similar square footage, all two-story wood-frame homes with basements, 4-5 stairs up to the front door (i.e. slightly elevated), similar tax-assessed values, used as a primary residence, as primaries have a somewhat subsidized rate. Hoyt plugged in $250,000 in coverage with both $2,000 and $5,000 deductibles; for the record, $5,000 deductibles aren’t allowed by all banks for homeowners with more limited resources.

The results were costly. The range for annual flood insurance costs was $2,382-$4,976 annually, with properties areas in areas with a more established history of recent flooding tending to be on the higher side of that span. If the homes were to be used for one-family rentals, the values jumped to $2,607-$6,132 annually; it’s not a consistent across-the-board percentage jump as multiple factors come into play. In some worst-case scenarios, for four-family buildings on the same lots, the flood insurance costs would be $5,900-$6,687.

If you think that’s breathtaking, Hoyt also did a few commercial properties in the expanded flood zone. A few commercial selections with $500,000 flood insurance coverage clocked in at up to $85,000 annually. “I know some commercial property owners who are going to see this and be very, very hot,” quipped Hoyt.

That’s just a small group of examples provided by Hoyt. There are thousands of properties facing the same financial dilemma. It’s pay up or sell. Or, if a rental, potentially pass the added costs onto the tenants.

“I know a lot of these streets are first-time homebuyer areas. I’m very concerned about these neighborhoods, I gotta say. Even the ones who have owned a home 20, 30 years. If they need a new roof, say it will cost them $25,000 or $30,000 to get a new roof on. They go to the bank to get a loan, the bank says they’ll need flood insurance to get a loan because they’re in a flood zone. $5,000 a year for a $30,000 loan is ridiculous. Maybe they don’t have to buy as much coverage for a smaller loan, but it will still be a lot of money. Those smaller home-equity type loans, for renovations…I wish there was a limit before you had to pay for flood insurance, but I realize that what someone earns has to be taken into account,” Hoyt observed.

There’s no one specific thing to blame here. You can point a finger at development, from homes on the hills and in the towns to that in the lake valley itself. You can point a finger at older properties too, built before flood concerns and stormwater management were good practice, and not updating accordingly. But then with something like climate change, you’re at the mercy of larger factors, natural and human-caused. All of this might feel abstract by themselves, but added together and it can create some real financial and emotional pain with more frequent flood damage and the costs of adapting to that.

What’s being done

Now, it should be noted that the City of Ithaca does have floodplain management regulations on the books. Everyone who’s lived in and around Ithaca long enough knows the city has flood-prone areas; they’ve just now expanded by quite a bit. If the city has a good flood mitigation plan in place, then residents are able to get a discount on their flood insurance, and lessen the pain to the pocketbook.

“The city and town (of Ithaca) are looking hard to find ways to mitigate this. They don’t want this to happen, they understand it’s a problem. What can be done to help mitigate some of this so that maybe not all of those that are looking like they will end up in the flood plain will actually end up there,” said Hoyt. A request for comment to city planners was not returned, though to be fair the Ithaca Planning Department is also significantly short-staffed at the moment.

Hoyt noted that stalling tactics to complete mitigations was not especially likely to work because FEMA is backed up everywhere and the process has already been delayed for Tompkins County by a year, thanks to a shifting of resources and priorities during the early waves of the pandemic.

However, some of the data used in the mapping may need to be refined, and the maps are tentative. They could still be adjusted to take some properties out, depending on mitigation strategies and more accurate/newer data.

“I think what FEMA has said, and what is probably an accurate way to handle it, is that we need to go with what we know, what they have, and then it is absolutely possible between now and when the maps are effective, that things could be taken out in areas,” Hoyt said. “They could do a remapping, called a LOMR, and pull it back out. So it’s not an end-all, be-all situation. If they find there’s mistakes, if their data isn’t current, which in some cases it may be 10 years old (actually from 2008) because that’s all they’ve got, then they may need to pull sections out. They’ve given the committee of people 30 days to look at the maps for anything blatant, so they will take a look at those things so they don’t have to be pulled out later.”

That 30 day period is wrapping up. City and county electeds and local planners are looking at what they can do and expressing that to FEMA. What that may change had yet to be determined. But they have to try for the sake of their constituents.

“I don’t think it’s doom and gloom. I think it’s a process. Is it sticker shock? Yeah. Do I think it will stay that way? I don’t think so,” Hoyt said. “I think a lot of this can be fixed. But it can’t be fixed until we do something about the streams coming into the city. It may just be repairs. The county and the city have to do their homework on the mitigation. That’s a team effort for them and FEMA to do.”

“I don’t want people to panic on this. It’s a process. The idea here is, look at this, which is what they’re doing, discuss it, calmly, figure out what the best ways are to deal with it. Those who live here know better than anybody where we have floodwaters. Flooding doesn’t just occur from the lake rising. It occurs from the streams coming down and an inability for our systems to drain our water away.”

The specific timeline for Ithaca says that the preliminary maps, with initial revisions applied per the input of local officials and planning personnel, will be released by the end of this summer. The community meeting will be at the end of the summer or in early fall. The 90-day appeal period to serve the public will likely be next winter, so by the time the map is firmed up, we’re talking Spring 2023, with final map determinations in Fall 2023 and an effective implementation date in Winter 2023-24.

Once that effective date is in place, homeowners will be on the hook for those flood insurance policies. The mortgage lenders have ways to ensure compliance. “Flood insurance is mandated by the FDIC, so the banks are required to make sure that all properties that they have loans on that are in a flood hazard zone get flood insurance. They are audited and they get fined if it’s not done. The bank runs addresses through a third-party vendor to verify they have insurance, they match up the FEMA list to the bank properties. They have to have the flood insurance within 45 days,” noted Hoyt.

So let’s stress some key points. Do not freak out. This is a lengthy review process. The map is tentative and will be refined and tweaked before it becomes the final product. There will be a chance for public input, but homeowners will need to take advantage of it if they want to prove that their home or their block may not need to be including in a new flood zone.

However, be aware this could have some serious impacts, and attend public meetings when they come up later this year. Nobody knew it would look like this and be this bad, but it’s been a long time coming. 40 years is 40 years.

Hoyt stressed the “do not panic” aspect multiple times. Stay calm, be aware and get involved were her key tenets. “I don’t want anybody to panic. What we need to do, and what I’m hoping will happen, is that when this comes out (for review), city officials will step up and start educating the public on what the process is. Right now the tentative maps are tentative. Show them what’s being worked on in the first year, so that they can get properties back out of the flood zone. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.”

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.