County adopts floodplain rules

Stricter standards required for insurance, public safety

New floodplain regulations were implemented in Montezuma County on Jan. 13 in order to comply with higher standards established by the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Colorado adopted updated rules to provide increased floodplain management standards in order to help communities prepare, plan for, respond to, and mitigate the effects of future flood damage.

New structures deemed "critical facilities" built on the Dolores River, or within other designated flood plains, will need to be raised a foot higher as a result of the new regulations.

The main change for the county, explained community services director James Dietrich, will be for critical facilities built in a designated floodplain. Those structures must now be built 2 feet above the base-flood elevation instead of the previous 1-foot standard.

Critical facilities include hospitals, schools, nursing homes, day care facilities and power stations, and government/public buildings.

Building regulations for non-critical facilities in the floodplain, such as residences, did not change from the 1-foot over the base-flood elevation. Also, there were no changes to the county floodplain boundaries.

Montezuma County participates in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) regulated under the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Under the program, the county is obligated to enforce the new minimum standards of the NFIP or face sanctions.

"The benefit is more affordable insurance rates within the county and improved protection against flood damage," Dietrich said. "If we do not comply with the minimum state and NFIP standards, we will be suspended from the program."

If suspended, it would result in sanctions including: no federal mortgage insurance in flood hazard areas; no resident will be able to purchase flood insurance; existing flood insurance polices will not be renewed; loss of access to federal grants; and no federal disaster assistance for repairing buildings located in flood hazard areas.

The new floodplain standards are part of the Montezuma County Land Use Code.

For construction in a designated floodplain zone, Montezuma requires certification from a licensed engineer, surveyor, or architect, which includes an elevation certificate and a stamped form that describes how the minimum standards are being met.

The information is kept on file for inspection by FEMA officials or the state of Colorado.

Enforcement is key

Enforcement of the floodplain rules is a priority, Dietrich said, because compliance is tied to flood insurance availability countywide.

At a Feb. 24 hearing, landowner Grant Smith was questioned by the Montezuma County Commission regarding his failure to submit a floodplain certifications for two structures along the river - a shop and a gazebo.

Smith has hired an engineer, Ernie Maness, who said work was being done to flood-proof the shop by constructing berms. The deck/gazebo structure will also require floodplain certification signed off by a qualified engineer.

"We will do remediation to bring them up to compliance," Maness said. "We will address both structures."

Mitigation measures are possible to remedy structures that do not comply with elevation standards. Solutions may include raising the structures, engineered berms, added foundation slabs, or flood vents that safely route water through the structure.

But the measures still need a qualified engineer to sign off on them to comply with NFIP and the county land-use code.

Mitigation signed off by a licensed engineer is preferable to variances, which raise a red flag to state regulators and FEMA, Dietrich said.

"Variances to the new rules may be considered by the county board of commissioners; however, they can be inspected by the state and FEMA, and if they don't agree, we could be at risk for sanctions," Dietrich said. "Complying with floodplain standards is really important for builders because they may be at risk for being liable. Part of their job is to build to code."

Smith's gazebo deck has been in the news before. Last August the county commissioners, in a 2-1 vote, granted him a variance for the deck for violating a rule requiring structures be set back 100 feet from the Dolores River. He was fined $1,000.

In his testimony, Dennis Atwater, speaking as a Dolores citizen, urged the county not to grant variances to land-use codes, including flood plain rules, because it sends the wrong message.

"Variances need good and sufficient cause," he said, "and must meet a hardship standard that I don't see here. I did not agree with the first variance (allowing a deck within the 100 foot buffer) either."

"How am I hurting the quality of the water?" asked Smith.

Audience member Galen Larson responded that flood protection rules benefit the entire county by mitigating pollution from inevitable flooding.

"It is a concern because the Dolores River and McPhee lake water supply affects everyone," Larson said. "We all depend on it."

Dolores River landowner Bruce Lightenburger objected to rules he feels are too stringent.

"People who own land on the river do not want to destroy it," he said. "I understand proper septic systems to avoid pollution. But a guy should be able to build a deck on his property to enjoy the river."

The public hearing was continued until April to give Smith and Mannes time to submit flood certification for the structures.

A floodplain map is available at the county offices. Other areas in the county that fall into designated floodplain include the: Dolores River, Westfork Creek, Simon Draw, Hartman Draw, McElmo Creek, Mancos River, Lost Canyon, among others.