Old Girdwood Flood Hazards Addressed
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Because structures in Old Girdwood are in a flood plain, all of them will soon undergo municipal inspection to ensure both buildings and property are up to code. Violations will need corrective action, and there are potentially steep consequences if required changes are not made.
Steve Ellis, Flood Hazard Administrator for the Municipality, will be conducting inspections. In a May 17 Girdwood Board of Supervisors Work Session, Ellis explained why the inspections are necessary and what Municipality’s intentions are.
Old Girdwood Zone’s boundary is the Alyeska Highway, the Seward Highway, Glacier Creek and the railroad tracks. The location is beside the confluence of Glacier Creek and California Creek. The last major flooding was remnants of Typhoon Oscar in 1995.
FEMA uses historical models with data going back to the 1970s to make projections of when a 100-year event might occur. The definition of a 100-year event is a significant storm that has a one percent chance of annual return in any given year. There is no guarantee from one year to the next.
“They are projections done by NOAA and those are getting constantly updated,” Ellis said. “They are a combination of projections. If we had 100-year events or a one-percent storm once every three or four years, it probably wouldn’t be a one-percent storm any more.”
Need for inspections arose after a Community Assistance Visit (CAV) by the state of Alaska to the communities participating in the National Flood Insurance Program through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The program allows property owners in a flood plain to buy insurance at rates lower than the private market.
After the previous CAV, not many corrections occurred and code violations were not enforced. The most recent CAV developed a corrective action program, and Old Girdwood was the evaluator’s primary concern.
“This CAV came out very specific, very corrective on the things they expect us to do” Ellis said. “We’ve come up with a plan of action.”
All properties in Old Girdwood will be evaluated. However, the state is reviewing the plan and has not yet accepted it.
If there are violations pertaining to a principal structure, notices will be issued, and Ellis is looking at issuing two notices or one per year. He said property owners will have two years to take corrective action.
“People should have plenty of time to figure this out and what they are going to do,” Ellis said. “Ultimately, if they fail to correct them, there will be no building or land use permits issued unless they are willing to include bringing the building into compliance. It will be on a stop work and no permit list and we will record violations against the title if they fail to respond or fail to correct.”
Ellis identified a problem that may catch property owners by surprise.
“One reason why we’re giving two years is I understand the people in these homes now may not be the original people who constructed it,” Ellis said. “They may have no idea that they’re in violation.”
Ellis said structures built after 2000 have records of who had required flood hazard and building permits and who did not. Ellis indicated he may take property owners who did not have the required permits to a hearing and use vigorous enforcement to get corrections made. No land use permits will be issued for such structures unless compliance is involved, there will be a record against title, and the structure will be placed on FEMA’s no flood insurance list.
Inspections will document items such as sheds, accessory buildings and unanchored connex trailers that are not allowed to be stored on a flood plain. Ellis will be enforcing compliance sooner if the violation does not involve a principal structure. He wants to work with people and give them time to resolve violations.
Materials that would be considered a water quality violation if they come into contact with water, such as an above ground fuel tank, could be an issue. Fuel tanks are required to be anchored because a fuel spill would exacerbate an already bad situation.
“Part of the issue with flooding is your house may be fine and you could still be underwater,” Ellis said,“but you don’t need something coming downstream smacking into it and causing extra damage.”
Buildings present on the pre-flood insurance rate map before September 1979 would be grandfathered, with additional rights allowed. However, such a structure must be brought up to code if over 50 percent of its current value is required on an upgrade or damage repair.
Another matter is structures that were built without complying to already issued permits.
“There are things in the last 10 years where we issued flood hazard permits that said here is what you can build,” Ellis said,“and the people did not build according to what they were permitted. You’ve seen a few of the homes down there where essentially all of the living space is second story with carports down in the lower level and those have since become closed. That is not allowed. There are provisions to allow you to enclose that space but there are certain requirements with what you must do at that level such as flood vents.”
If a carport has become an enclosed space that has been converted into living area, it’s required to be up higher on an elevated slab, which would be very expensive to fix. Ellis understands the difficulty of the situation, but if the problems are not fixed, insurance rates will rise.
“It’s not a crusade or anything,” Ellis said. “I’m just saying this is something I have to do. Here are the facts. I’ll explain it to you the best I can. We have to go down this road. There is the ability to apply for variances. Once a community issues so many variances in the flood plain, we have to notify FEMA and they start raising flood insurance rates. Right now we get a twenty percent deduction because of the program we run.”
The results of the CAV and the violation letters go to FEMA. According to Ellis, if the Municipality does not comply, FEMA will try to work with it for a year. If the Municipality still does not comply, there is the possibility of being censured, put on probation or ultimately be suspended from flood insurance. Suspension means no new FEMA flood policies will be issued to people with flood insurance within the municipality.
Supervisor Jerry Fox brought up the cell phone tower at Old Girdwood’s intersection of Main St. and Gold Ave. saying that residents hate it.
Ellis responded, “That one didn’t get a permit. I had sent them a letter. I have talked to them, and that is one of the things I will be placing on my list. I don’t have the right to make the cell tower go away. That shack did not meet my requirements as far as I know. They’re probably one of the first people on my list, but it’s not going to make the tower go away.”