State memo threatens city's flood insurance

A state memo suggesting there may be a problem with Milford’s standing with the National Flood Insurance Program has local environmentalists saying big trouble is looming, but city officials say that matters concerning the flood plain are well under control.

Further, the mayor thinks a state-level complaint about the way Milford handled two coastal zoning matters may have been lodged for personal — and not environmental — reasons.

In a memo issued last week, Diane S. Ifkovic, state national flood insurance coordinator for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said there have been two potential violations of flood plain development regulations recently in Milford, and without remedy, Milford faces probation, even suspension, from the National Flood Insurance Program.

Ifkovic alleges in her memo that the violations occurred after Former Assistant City Planner Emmeline Harrigan’s job was eliminated July 1. Harrigan had been the assistant city planner in Milford until she lost her job due to budget cuts. Many people who fought to keep the post said Harrigan was the one person who knew the regulations affecting Milford’s coastline and flood zones.

“Participation in the National Flood Insurance Program is a mutual agreement between the community and the federal government (FEMA),” Ifkovic’s memo states. “FEMA makes flood insurance available to residents in participating communities. The community is tasked with correctly and consistently regulating construction in the flood plain through land use permitting and enforcement procedures. Therefore, the community’s role is of paramount importance.

“Unfortunately,” the memo continues, “since the loss of the flood plain administrator position, it is clear that attention to program implementation and staff knowledge is lacking, evidenced by two potential violations that have been brought to this office’s attention.”

The memo was sent to several city officials, including Mayor Ben Blake, and then forwarded to the media and others outside the city government, after a meeting between Ifkovic and several city representatives last week. Environmentalist Barbara Bell was one of the people to receive the memo.

“This is extremely important not only for Milford residents who live along the shore, but also for residents who live anywhere near/in the flood plains of Milford’s major rivers: Housatonic, Oyster, at the borders; Wepawaug and Indian in the middle,” said Bell. “The letter threatens the loss of Milford’s National Flood Insurance Program status, which the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection most certainly has the power to influence, although the final determination would be made by the feds.”

While city officials, and even state officials, don’t seem to think Milford will get to the point of being suspended from the program, a synopsis that Ifkovic attached to her memo outlines the ramifications of being ousted from it.

“That means residents will not be able to purchase a flood insurance policy, or receive a mortgage since the purchase of flood insurance is a requirement of a mortgage for homes located in the flood zone, existing flood insurance policies will not be renewed, no federal grants or loans for development may be made in identified flood zones under programs administered by federal agencies (such as HUD, EPA, or SBA), no federal disaster assistance may be provided to repair insurable buildings located in identified flood zones for damage caused by flood, no federal mortgage insurance or loan guarantees may be provided in identified flood zones, federally insured or regulated lending institutions such as banks and credit unions must notify applicants seeking loans for insurable buildings in flood hazard areas that the property is not eligible for federal disaster relief and is located in a flood hazard area,” a memo attachment states.

Bell said, “In the best case, hardship delays by property owners along the coastline would be extended until the city complies with the various conditions cited in the letter, which may or may not happen quickly or easily.”

She said the problem “is the inevitable — and predicted — consequence of firing Emmeline Harrigan.”

“The chickens have come home to roost,” Bell said.

What Milford has to do

In her memo, Ifkovic says that in the next 90 days Milford has to fix the problems. The city has to designate a flood plain administrator by Sept. 30, provide training for the administrator, and address concerns at the two coastal properties where construction is taking place.

The state memo says that a Caroline Street project that was deemed substantially damaged during Hurricane Sandy by FEMA was re-evaluated by city officials, who found less damage than FEMA had. The city subsequently issued a permit July 8 to perform various repairs at the property. The state now wants Milford to provide all data, correspondence and calculations showing how the community evaluated the appeal, including what percent damage the home incurred based on the reinspection.

Information is also sought on an East Broadway property, which the state official said has been approved for elevation despite some inconsistencies with flood zone elevation guidelines. The state memo says that existing foundation walls are being allowed to remain that are inconsistent with the standards for construction in the flood zone and that new concrete elements, which are non-compliant, have also been allowed below the structure.

“This office advises the community to review the project and require the removal of any obstructions to flow before a certificate of occupancy is issued for this property,” the memo says. “Please note that non-compliant structures, when rated for insurance, result in dramatic flood insurance premium increases.”

The state also wants a list of permits and certificates of occupancy issued in the flood plain for July and August, and then a list of permits and certificates of occupancy issued in the flood plain each month between September and December.

“This office will conduct continued monitoring until Milford can demonstrate that they have corrected these deficiencies and have addressed staffing issues,” the memo states.

City view

City officials say they understand what the state agency is looking for and are prepared to comply with the demands so there are no repercussions and Milford remains in good standing with the national program.

“We will make every effort to comply,” said Joe Griffith, Milford’s director of permitting and land use. “We should be able to resolve this. We are taking it very seriously in every respect, and will address this thoroughly.”

Griffith said he is confident the city will address the concerns and thereby avoid probation.

Mayor Blake said the city is not in any jeopardy of losing its standing with the national program.

“I am 100% confident of that,” Blake said. “Milford is light-years ahead of other shoreline communities, and there is no chance the city would be put on probation.”

Blake said there are two qualified people in the city to handle flood plain administration, and he said he believes the problems cited in the state memo actually are rooted in actions that took place before July 1. He described them as “mistakes” that can be corrected, mistakes that occurred when the former assistant city planner — Harrigan — was still employed here.

Blake, who said Ifkovic is not an authority but rather a liaison to the floor insurance program who had “some of her facts wrong” when she wrote her memo, sent a letter to DEEP Commissioner Robert Klee after receiving the memo. In his letter, the mayor questions Ifkovic’s motives.

“I spoke with those in attendance at this meeting on behalf of the city,” Blake wrote to Klee. “The consensus amongst them is that Ms. Ifkovic’s tone and demeanor were adversarial and hostile throughout the meeting. Without the benefit of a complete understanding and/or history of either property characterized by Ms. Ifkovic as ‘recent issues,’ Ms. Ifkovic summarily declared each ‘potential violations.’”

The mayor said that Ifkovic seemed to come to Milford to find fault with its administration due to the “loss of the flood plain administrator position,” which was Harrigan.

“To be clear, the City of Milford did not lose a flood plain manager position,” Blake continued. “There has never been such a position in the Milford budget. Ms. Ifkovic is undoubtedly referring to the Milford Board of Finance’s elimination of the Assistant City Planner position in April of 2014.”

Blake said while Harrigan was a certified flood plain manager, she wasn’t the only city employee to hold that certificate. He said Milford City Engineer Gary Wassmer also holds the certified flood plain manager certificate.

“Clearly, Mr. Wassmer is capable of taking on the duties and responsibilities of a flood plain administrator,” Blake said, adding that the director of permitting and land use is also qualified to administer FEMA regulations.

“Ms. Ifkovic’s loyalty to Ms. Harrigan is well documented and certainly strays beyond that of mere professional deference,” the mayor wrote. Blake pointed out that Ifkovic helped circulate a petition started months ago to restore Harrigan’s job. The mayor thinks Ifkovic’s allegiance to Harrigan means Milford may be receiving treatment different from other shoreline communities in Connecticut with respect to flood plain oversight.

“Ms. Ifkovic’s August 21st e-mail certainly takes on a very threatening tone,” the mayor wrote.

In his letter, Blake asks the commissioner to appoint a different flood insurance program coordinator for Milford.

Ifkovic could not be reached for comment Monday. Dennis Schain, however, a DEEP spokesman, confirmed that the agency is working with the city to address and resolve some issues. He said some staff members are concerned Milford is putting itself in jeopardy with regard to the program but he doesn’t believe the city is in imminent danger of being ousted.