Rural Landowners Want DNR to Stop Using Best Available Flood Maps

January 23, 2023

Rural landowners are butting heads with water experts and environmentalists over a potential repeal of a 2022 provision approved by state lawmakers requiring authorities to use the “best available” maps during permitting.

Senate Bill 242, authored by farm owner Sen. Jean Leising and majority floor leader and Indiana Builders Association member Sen. Chris Garten, seeks to repeal a provision in a state law passed last year requiring local floodplain administrators to use “the best floodplain mapping data available” when reviewing a permit application for a structure or other construction in or near a floodplain.

The provision requires floodplain administrators to use newer, more recent mapping data published by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources when available instead of more dated and potentially inaccurate Federal Emergency Management Agency maps.

Some rural landowners and land developers said the bill was shifting the onus of responsibility of proving land is not flood prone from the state to property owners.

“That means hiring a consultant and spending money to make their case when, all along, they weren’t in the FEMA map and thought they were good to go to build a structure,” said Indiana Builders Association CEO Rick Wajda. “DNR is receiving 10 to 12 reviews a month on the program. So that tells me over 100 property owners in the course of a year are challenging these maps, which means a lot of time and a lot of energy spent to prove that their property is not in danger of flooding.”

Other landowners worried about the effect the updated maps would have on construction and resale of the property.

Jacksonburg resident Laurie Garrard told the committee she was unable to build a garage because the new maps put most of her town, which is located next to Dry Branch Stream and the Martindale Public Fishing Area, in a floodplain when old FEMA maps did not.

“We are worried about what to do with our property, because, if we were to sell it, we would feel obligated to let the people that are buying our property know to be prepared to not be able to improve it,” she testified.

Environmental and conservation groups argued that the requirement was necessary to protect lives and property downstream from the areas facing permitting issues.

“We are facing bigger and greater flood risks. This is the conversation going on across the water community, so I’d urge you to do anything that we can do to protect our floodplains,” testified White River Alliance executive director Jill Hoffman. “When we put encroachments in the floodway, we put lives downstream at risk and we ask our first responders to put themselves at risk. We ask our municipal leaders to pay for the damage when we see the flood debris show up in our streams, causing pollution and hazards.”

Over the past century, the burning of fossil fuels for energy and other human activities have caused grave changes to the earth’s climate. In Indiana, those changes have resulted in a hotter, wetter state.

The average annual precipitation in Indiana has increased by about 5.6 inches per year since 1895. Southern parts of the state have experienced an increase of between 6.2 and 6.7 inches compared to 1895.

Adapting to those changes has cost communities millions of dollars in infrastructure investments, and hundreds of millions more are being requested.

Hoosier Environmental Council environmental health and water policy director Dr. Indra Frank testified that Indiana law dating back to the 1940s states that floodways should not be inhabited at all.

Indiana’s Flood Control Act was written and passed in 1945, more than three decades before the creation of FEMA. The legislation contains a section entitled “legislative intent,” which states that floodways “should not be inhabited and should be kept free and clear of interference or obstructions that will cause any undue restriction of the capacity of the floodways.”

Wells County surveyor Jarrod Hahn said that hundreds of homes across the state have been purchased through federal grant buyout programs to reduce flood damages to the Maumee River basin. He testified that keeping the “requirement” provision could help prevent loss of life and property.

“I'm going to close by telling you something that I've heard many times in my 18 years as a county surveyor, several years as a first responder to volunteer fireman responding to flood victims. One of the most common themes that I've heard is, ‘I didn't know I was in a flood zone.’ Another one is, ‘I'm not in a map flood zone. How am I flooding?’ Another one is, ‘I didn't know my homeowner’s insurance didn't cover this.’ And the last one is, ‘We lost everything.’ And that is heart wrenching,” Hahn testified.

Leising, who serves as ranking member of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, said she did not know how the provision made its way onto the bill.

“I don't normally miss any meetings, and I didn't remember any discussion in regard to the agency bill about this. And I thought, ‘How does this happen that we put it in statute?’ So, then I started asking other legislators. I couldn't find anybody that knew this here now, that knew that it was in statute,” Leising said. “I just want to remind everyone that the process failed in the ’22 session, because none of the lobbyists knew, at least in the Senate, none of the legislators knew in the Indiana Senate, that this language was mandated in this bill.”

House Bill 1103, which introduced the “best available map” requirement, was sponsored by Senate Committee on Natural Resources chair Sen. Susan Glick. According to the Indiana General Assembly website, the bill made its way to the committee with the “requirement” language already in place.

Sen. Leising approved the bill with the provision twice, once as ranking member of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and again when the bill was voted on by the full Indiana Senate.

The committee passed the bill 6 to 2. The bill now heads to the full Indiana Senate for consideration.

Rural Landowners Want DNR to Stop Using Best Available Flood Maps