Grand County is currently one of just a few local government entities nationwide that does not belong to the National Flood Insurance Program, which means that residents in its unincorporated areas cannot buy federally backed flood insurance.
Without that insurance, more and more property owners beyond Moab’s city limits are finding that they cannot obtain federally backed loans to build homes, according to Grand County Building Official Jeff Whitney.
“I know of four loans right now that can’t go through,” Whitney said July 18.
The situation, which is mainly a problem in the designated floodplain areas of the Pack Creek drainage, also impacts some homeowners who want to refinance their federally backed mortgages. Likewise, it hurts those who want to sell their homes, according to Whitney.
“Almost every home loan is federally guaranteed any more, and so it does cause a problem when our citizens cannot buy or sell a property,” he said.
Affected property owners can still buy flood insurance through Lloyd’s of London, but those policies are very expensive, Whitney said.
Fortunately for those property owners, a solution is within easy reach, said Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) External Affairs Specialist Jerry DeFelice.
The Grand County Council can resolve the situation, he said, if it votes to sign up for the National Flood Insurance Program.
“If they join and become a participating community, anybody in Grand County can get a flood insurance policy,” DeFelice said.
Utah State Floodplain Manager John Crofts is also encouraging the county to take advantage of the free program, which would open up access to federal grants, loans and disaster assistance.
“It can avoid a lot of pain and grief to businesses and residents,” he told the Grand County Council Aug. 5.
Crofts sees a clear reason why most communities across the country have signed on to the program.
“When communities don’t participate, things get blurry and confusing,” Crofts said.
In Utah, Duchesne County is the only other county that doesn’t participate in the program. But much of Duchesne County’s growth is occurring in incorporated areas that have signed up, so the situation there isn’t much of a problem for its residents, according to Whitney.
In contrast, Whitney notes that some of the fastest growth in Grand County is happening in unincorporated Spanish Valley, and that’s where several prospective homeowners are running into challenges.
Whitney has also been in touch with a family that wants to build a home in the Hastings Road area near the Emery County line.
That property lies within the Green River’s floodplain, but Whitney said that elevations from one end to the other vary considerably.
The family is hoping to build the home at the high end of the property, some 40 vertical feet above the river. But they can’t, he said, unless they obtain a potentially costly revision to FEMA’s existing flood insurance rate map.
“Because the property touches the river, they’re in the floodplain,” he said.
According to Whitney, the property owners could solve the problem by subdividing the land. In other words, by drawing an imaginary line on a map, they could show that the proposed home site is well above the flood hazard zone.
“It’s really a joke, and yet it is affecting people’s ability to buy property,” Whitney said.
KaLeigh Welch and her family are lucky in the sense that her in-laws gave them a half-acre property in Spanish Valley.
However, a portion of the property lies within the designated Pack Creek floodplain, and even though they want to build a house above that zone, they face the same dilemma as the Hastings Road property owners do.
“We really want a house, and it’s been quite an epic battle, to say the least,” Welch said.
They had no trouble whatsoever getting a building permit from Grand County, and they were able to come up with their own money to build a garage on the property, Welch said.
To build the home itself, the family applied for a loan, and according to Welch, the loan was pre-approved. But then, to her surprise, the lending process ground to a halt.
“They had everything they needed to get us a loan until it got to the underwriters,” Welch said. “We were weeks out from having the loan secured — probably not more than two weeks out.”
After that happened, the family began to work with a surveyor on an application for a Conditional Letter of Map Revision (CLOMR), and Welch hopes that FEMA will sign off on the changes.
If it does, it could clear the way for the family to obtain a loan, as well as flood insurance.
However, Welch is hopeful that other county residents won’t have to go through the process. She believes the county could fix things by revising the current FEMA flood insurance rate map of Spanish Valley.
“It definitely would be beneficial for the residents to have this study done,” she said.
Whitney said the current document is a “garbage map,” noting that it contains errors. For instance, some roads don’t appear where they should be, he said.
The county could opt to stick with the existing document, but Whitney believes that it can come up with a better map of flood zones.
“We kind of owe it to the people who are in a dangerous situation with flooding to have a proper map,” he said.
Since the county’s resources are limited, Whitney suggested focusing on an area that runs from the southern edge of the recently remapped Grand-Vu Park Subdivision to the San Juan County line.
“We need to deal with the populated areas and the privately owned properties of Spanish Valley,” he said.
DeFelice acknowledged that the existing Spanish Valley map might not be perfect, and he said the agency would welcome any new information that Grand County can provide it.
“Maybe the map is old and maybe the map doesn’t reflect what we know to be true,” DeFelice said.
However, his agency won’t be able to offer the county any financial support.
In recent years, Congress cut FEMA’s funding for map work by more than half, and as a result, the agency is focusing its remapping efforts on densely-populated urban areas, Whitney said.
Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson said he believes that it will be a challenge to come up with at least $110,000 in project funding, but council member Gene Ciarus voiced support for the idea.
“I think we need to do it,” Ciarus said.