Flood plain rules could restrict Pa. development

March 09, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH


If you live in Washington Township, Pa., some of your neighbors want you to be aware of how proposed regulations would restrict your ability to buy, sell or build on land.

In the 39-square-mile township, the regulations would apply to the estimated 5 to 8 percent of land that is considered to be in the 100-year flood plain.

The township supervisors this week indicated they are seeking to lessen the severity of the restrictions, but they would still make it very difficult for property owners to sell land to someone seeking to build one or more structures.


Residents this week asked the supervisors if they plan to notify people who live in flood plains, and the supervisors responded that they're not sure how to identify and notify them.

The 100-year flood plain is property that has a 1 percent chance each year of being flooded as determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"It is not that the flood will occur once every 100 years ... The 100-year flood is a relatively rare event," said Niki Edwards of FEMA's Region 3 office in Philadelphia.


Restrictions on building in flood plains exist to deal with runoff, the free flow of water and flood-loss reduction.

The current flood plain ordinance in Washington Township, adopted in the 1990s, prohibits construction that would raise the water level elsewhere by one foot.

A FEMA report for Washington Township found that with the existing ordinance, "While the potential for development in the flood plains exists, actual residential development in this area is sufficiently removed so as to contain structural flooding to basements and uninhabited out buildings."

Last summer, developer WAM Enterprises proposed 250 housing units behind the Wayne Heights Mall on Pa. 16. The developer later scaled back the proposal and removed about a half-dozen homes from the 100-year flood plain along the Antietam Creek.

Construction on the flood plains became a leading issue in the township as a citizens' group, residents, supervisors and the planning commission looked to prevent future problems.

The township asked FEMA to update the flood plain maps in August 2005, but map revisions have not yet been made available. Those maps are used by federal and state agencies and insurers.

In the meantime, the supervisors instructed the township solicitor to draft an ordinance that would completely prohibit all future construction in the flood plain.

Property owners came forward, telling the supervisors that move might make their land worthless. Who would purchase property if they could not build a house, shed, barn or garage on it, they reasoned.

Wallace and Devona Snowberger told the supervisors that potential buyers of their three-quarters of an acre on Cold Spring Road have been scared off, knowing they might not be able to build there.

"I'm a little uncomfortable making someone's land worthless when it's worth something now," Supervisor Carroll Sturm said Monday.

The township supervisors this week instructed the solicitor to instead draft the ordinance so the restrictions would only apply to future subdivision of land.

This would ideally allow property owners to build on their land if allowed by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on a case-by-case basis.

They wouldn't, however, be able to divide the land into parcels for a developer.

Continued review

The supervisors have said they will continue to obtain comments from the public and generally appreciate those comments in letter form.

Their actions to place greater restrictions on building in flood plains is within their rights, Edwards said.

"Local agencies or state (ones) can adopt more stringent rules," Edwards said.

Most municipalities adopted ordinances like Washington Township's existing one to be in compliance with the National Flood Insurance Plan, Edwards said.

More than 20,000 communities have voluntarily adopted the ordinance, according to the National Flood Insurance Plan's Web site.

The majority of land in the 100-year flood plain in the township is southwest of the Borough of Waynesboro along Antietam Creek. Another 100-year flood plain extends along Marsh Run at the Washington and Antrim townships line.

FEMA requires that property owners in the 100-year flood plain carry flood insurance.

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