The sale of a downtown Gardiner building came to a screeching halt last month when the buyer received a flood insurance quote.
Instead of paying $2,000 per year, the new home of the Gardiner Food Co-op was told to expect to pay $20,000 a year, a bill the nonprofit could never afford.
The jump was the result of a new federal flood insurance policy that is phasing out the subsidy for coverage of buildings in harm’s way, forcing property owners to pay the real cost for the risk they face.
The new policy could create a hardship for many of Maine’s historic downtowns that are close to rivers and harbors and are trying to reuse old industrial buildings. The problem, however, is not with the new policy.
Congress was right to pass the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which attempts to bring sanity to a system that rewarded risky behavior.
Property owners received heavily subsidized flood insurance, allowing them to build in precarious locations. If their property was wiped out in a storm, they were given the money to build there again, thanks to the generosity of their fellow taxpayers. What started as a disaster relief program became an opportunity for a few people to hit the casino with house money.
With sea level rise and climate change-related floods expected to increase over time, this was a gamble that other people should not be expected to bankroll. An unintended consequence of this new policy, however, has been heavy penalties paid by people in Gardiner and other like places who can’t sell their property to developers because the sale would trigger a quick rise in insurance costs.
Stories like these could get members of Congress seeking re-election to promise to ease those standards. But that would be the wrong way to fix this problem.
There is a role for relief from the federal government, but it should come in the form of grants and low-interest loans to help individual property owners and local governments make their buildings more flood-resistant.
There are many improvements that could help, including the dikes and drainage ditches that have been employed for centuries in the Netherlands, keeping below-sea-level developments safe from flooding. Buildings can be floodproofed to either keep them dry in floods or to let floodwaters pass through them without destroying them.
Financing these kinds of improvements makes sense. Continually rebuilding properties that never should have been built where they are does not.
Congress should resist pressure from beachfront developers to bring back subsidized insurance rates, and instead increase access to programs that would help property owners and municipalities lower insurance rates by lowering the risk.