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Flood of restrictions on Balboa Island could ease

With FEMA's acknowledgement of an error in the way it figured the base flood elevation, homeowners could see some relief.

January 17, 2014|By Emily Foxhall

Getting the go-ahead for major construction on Balboa Island is no easy task, but homeowners may get some relief since a federal agency acknowledged an error in the way it calculated a key flooding threshold.

The recalculation could also ease insurance rates for those in the area, a flood plain.

Until now, any homeowners who wished to make improvements that cost more than 50% of the value of the home (excluding the property value) also needed to comply with a requirement that the home stand nine feet above sea level. In some cases, this has meant that homeowners would need to raise the house — a difficult and expensive task — or tear it down.

That minimum height, known as the base flood elevation, reflects the level to which water is expected to rise during a flood.

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But the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined the nine-foot minimum using incorrect calculations, meaning the requirement should be eight feet, city staff said during a study session Tuesday.

In late 2003, FEMA concluded that the elevation in Newport Beach should be nine feet when the agency updated its maps to reflect a new calculation methodology.

Old tools held the measurement to be six feet. To convert it required adding 2.3 feet, yielding 8.3 feet.

When FEMA rounded this new calculation to the nearest whole number though, the agency pushed it to nine instead of to the nearer eight.

FEMA acknowledged that error in an email to the city Tuesday, said Seimone Jurjis, the chief building officer for the city.

"That's going to be a dramatic help to property owners in determining their flood insurance premiums," he said.

For example, a property owner who spoke at the study session would be able to follow through with his home improvements as planned because the top of his bottom floor is at an 8.39-foot elevation, which would be considered above — not below — the city's flood line.

FEMA will initiate the map revision, but city staff are still awaiting word on the timeline for an official change to the base flood elevation, Jurjis said.

Consultants for Newport Beach also collected data, rather than rely on the FEMA maps, to determine the elevation. They concluded the level should be 7.7 feet, which would also round to eight feet, information that will be shared with the agency, Jurjis said.

The adjustment also comes into play with upcoming changes in the way FEMA's National Flood Insurance program calculates flood insurance premiums.

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