New flood zones and development plans deluge homeowners
By Jack Firneno
If Ed Nini knew last October what he knows now, he would have never bought the house.
Last year, Nini and his family moved from Phoenixville to a house about 100 feet from a tributary of Core Creek in Lower Makefield. A sprawling suburban home, it has a landscaped front, rear deck and swing set in the backyard.
Twice so far, the swings have nearly been under water.
“When it happens, it takes a while,” said Nini about the two floods he’s already experienced. “The first storm took all day, but as soon as it crested it came out to our house very quickly.”
The same happened a few months later: “[The creek] started to back up at 6:30, and by 8:30 there was a full river in my backyard.”
No one – not the Realtor, not the township, not the mortgage company, not the previous homeowner – ever told Nini that the backyards regularly flood, that the property borders a floodplain or that FEMA was drawing up new floodplain maps that would put his house in a high-risk zone.
“My neighbor to the left has been here 17 years and told me it’s gotten progressively worse over the last few years,” said Nini.
Now he’s looking at increased insurance premiums and the possibility of floodwaters filling his basement. But Nini’s also worried about potential new construction nearby that could make the situation worse – and why the township has seemingly ignored the problem.
Nearby residents have posited theories like a backup somewhere along the creek, the fact that the waterway bends right in that area, or erosion around a man-made pond on the grounds of Moon Rickert Nursery just on the other side of the creek.
But, Nini said he felt “shut down” when Lower Makefield township engineer Mark Eisold told him there wasn’t anything anyone could do since the land was now on a floodplain.
Eisold clarified this, saying he could survey about a quarter-mile in each direction of the river to ensure there were no obvious visual problems. Any work after that would have to be approved by the township supervisors.
“It’s a long stream, and if there’s a problem affecting these properties, it’s going to happen near them,” said Eisold. The past few floods could be the result of recent storms that hit hard for short periods of time, causing flash flooding, he added. But the new FEMA floodplain maps, which move the 100-year floodline from the trees about 50 feet from Nini’s house to cover the entire property, are merely the result of better technology.
“The old maps didn’t know where the contours where. Now they have the grade elevation factored in. They’re much more accurate than the old ones,” Eisold explained.
But whatever the reason, it translates into more expenses for local residents, who will now be required to purchase flood insurance and won’t be grandfathered in for lower premiums. Nini expects to start paying at least $500 annually and have that figure increase.
The map revisions started in 2010. Had Nini been notified, he said, “I likely would have not purchased the property.”
But resale woes and questions about accountability – the previous owner denied any knowledge of flooding in the seller’s disclosure – aside, Nini is frustrated with the Township’s lack of response, especially as Lower Makefield entertains plans for a new development on the Moon Rickert Nursery site.
“I’m not opposed to development. I’m opposed to the potential that it could cause more problems and them not doing anything about it,” said Nini.
Fortunately, he has an ally in Jeff Benedetto, a Lower Makefield Township supervisor who said Nini’s concerns are “100 percent on the money.”
The township has the opportunity to make the situation better as developers present their plans, but even Benedetto isn’t confident they’ll use it.
“The issue I had when I heard it was: there are new homeowners as we’re potentially approving this development,” he explained. “But there are existing homeowners that pay taxes, and we’re saying we’re going to accommodate new people, but existing people are on their own.”
Construction could be approved as soon as September, said Benedetto, and although there’s no clear-cut indication that the construction will worsen the flooding, it’s the supervisors’ jobs to investigate it before approving the plans.
“Based on what I saw, I wouldn’t vote for it,” said Benedetto. There’s a chance he won’t have to: Benedetto arranged a meeting last Wednesday night with Nini and other residents, Eisold and Township Manager Terry Fedorchak.
Eisold noted before the meeting that ordinances require construction plans to reduce the peak flows downstream, so any new development should actually make things better.
Nevertheless, the township agreed to analyze the creek over the next 45 days to identify any problems. Even if an obstruction is cleared, however, there’s no indication the analysis will affect development plans. And, residents will still be on the hook for flood insurance as a result of the new FEMA maps.
But for Nini, it’s a start.
“I don’t know what will come of it,” he said, “but for the first time I felt like we were finally being heard.”