Back in September, the city's engineering department sent a letter to the owners of a few thousand homes and businesses surrounding the Templeton Gap levee.
In essence, the letter said this: You may have heard the Federal Emergency Management Agency is redrawing and digitizing the nation's flood maps and certifying levees following the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. This means new areas will be considered floodplains, and homeowners in those areas will need expensive flood insurance. But don't worry. We've got it covered.
This July, those same homeowners got another letter, which essentially said: Nix the last letter, and prepare your checkbooks.
Between September and July, a chain of events took place, which in the next couple years will cost many homeowners perhaps $50 to $150 a month.
Elected officials saw this coming from miles away, and crowed loudly about it (to no avail).
"You're saving yourself a few bucks a year," City Councilor Scott Hente said last fall, "to incur the luxury of spending $1,000 a year on flood insurance."
He was referring to Issue 300, approved last November. According to election maps, residents of the Templeton Gap area — roughly bordered by Union Boulevard to the east, Nevada Avenue to the west, the Templeton Gap channel to the north, and Constitution Avenue to the south — voted with much of the city to OK 300.
It was designed to end payments between enterprises and the city, and to eliminate the city's unpopular Stormwater fee. That fee cost single-family households $25.80 to $163.80 annually, and went to fund drainage projects. The fact that voters never approved Stormwater fees had long been a source of contention.
However, the end of Stormwater fees meant that many planned projects were suddenly unfunded — including $4.5 million in safety improvements to the city's only levee, a structure built six decades ago at Templeton Gap.
Without the improvements, Templeton doesn't meet FEMA's safety standards, so when FEMA finishes updating its Colorado Springs flood maps, they will include a huge new floodplain surrounding the Templeton levee.
And as many as 3,000 businesses and households will soon face a new bill for mandatory flood insurance.
On the clock
Fortunately for recession-hit homeowners, government moves slowly. Those maps probably won't be finalized until the end of 2012.
The bad news is, mortgage companies don't have to wait that long to require flood insurance.
Thuy Patton, FEMA's state floodplain mapping coordinator, says when FEMA was remapping floodplains in La Plata County (which includes Durango), local governments posted preliminary maps online. Mortgage companies saw the maps and told homeowners that flood insurance requirements were effective immediately.
Because of that, Patton says, "It's not recommended to have your preliminary maps online."
Now, barring leaks of information, most mortgage companies won't require insurance until after the maps are finalized. Plenty has to happen before then.
FEMA probably will release preliminary maps in October 2011. Public meetings will follow; residents will have 90 days to file appeals, which will need supportive technical data. Only then will maps be finalized, and local governments given six months to update ordinances accordingly.
Still, Templeton Gap residents may not want to snooze. Norm Ashford, FEMA regional flood insurance specialist, says some homeowners should buy flood insurance (from the National Flood Insurance Program) soon, because "grandfathering can freeze the rates that they have today."
In other words, buy now while you're in a low-risk flood zone, or outside a flood zone, and you can lock in the lower rates even if the new FEMA maps put your home into the "A-zone," or most flood-prone area.
Only homeowners with federally backed mortgages for homes in the "A-zone" must buy flood insurance. Many factors contribute to how expensive flood insurance is, such as the elevation of the home's lowest floor, the home's value and the date the home was built. (Anything built prior to Dec. 18, 1986 will cost more to insure.)
A way out?
Believe it or not, the city is still trying to find a way to fix Templeton Gap and save homeowners money.
Senior city engineer Dan Bare says the city is using the last of the Stormwater money to finish paperwork for the Templeton project. That way, if the city is able to, say, get a federal grant to pay for the work, it will be ready to go. The work itself could be completed in a matter of months.
"At this point," Bare says, "we're just trying to see what the options might be."
There aren't any solid leads right now. City Councilor Jan Martin has been trying to find a solution, meeting with state and FEMA officials. But those have been dead ends. If there's a way out of this, she says, it'll have to be local.
Maybe, she hypothesizes, floodplain residents could form a special district and tax themselves to pay for the project. Or maybe the solution is a voter-approved regional stormwater district.
Regardless, Martin wants to find a way to get Templeton fixed. She says she's worried that strapped families simply can't afford one more bill, and may end up losing their homes to foreclosure.
"I really want people to know that it hasn't fallen off the radar," Martin says, "and that we really are concerned about the impact it will have on the people living in that area."