Sunset Vistas condo owners knew they had to do something when their flood insurance premiums hit $400,000 a year.
The reason for the big tab? Federal flood maps showed that the waterfront Treasure Island complex had a high risk of wave-related damage.
The solution: Get the flood maps changed.
The result: An insurance bill that plunged to less than $20,000 a year.
"It was just an insane difference,'' said Kelly Dees, an officer of Sunset Vistas condo association.
A new federal law has sent flood insurance premiums soaring for thousands of homeowners in recent months. But over the past few years, residents of at least nine Tampa Bay condo complexes have slashed their bills by convincing the Federal Emergency Management Agency that its flood maps are wrong.
The process can takes months, entail reams of surveys and studies and cost tens of thousands of dollars, more than most owners of single-family houses can afford. But for those that can pay, typically condo associations, the savings are worth it.
Land's End, a 177-unit gulf-front complex on Treasure Island, was originally in the VE zone, considered the most hazardous because it generally is beachfront. With its flood insurance premium nearing $100,000 a year, the association hired a consultant who demonstrated to FEMA that the growth of dunes and vegetation had created a natural barrier against waves.
In December, FEMA moved Land's End to the AE zone, a lower-risk classification. The premium dropped to about $9,000.
"We're going to save $800,000 over eight years,'' estimated Cal Brummett, association manager for Land's End.
FEMA says it gets about 30,000 requests a year nationwide for map revisions and approves about 90 percent. That's not surprising to critics and consultants, who say the flood maps are often inaccurate and broad-brushed, making them a flawed tool for assessing insurance risks.
"The bottom line is that perhaps many properties should have never been placed in the VE zone to begin with,'' said Ken Morris, president of Floodzone Revisions LLC, a Boynton Beach company that helps property owners change their FEMA zone designations.
The problem with using flawed flood maps to set insurance rates drew extra scrutiny after Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Act in 2012. The law is intended to keep the National Flood Insurance Program afloat by ending subsidies to older properties built before FEMA began producing its flood hazard maps in the 1970s.
As subsidies vanish, owners of some single-family homes have been hit with bills of $20,000 a year or more, an amount that even advocates of flood insurance reform agree is concerning, particularly when it's tied to flawed flood maps.
"We're taking away the people's hard-earned money,'' said Christian Camara, Florida director of the R Street Institute, an ardent supporter of Biggert-Waters.
FEMA acknowledges its maps have problems and is updating them nationwide as part of Biggert-Waters. The agency hired a risk-modeling company, AIR Worldwide, which is using advanced weather simulation and high-resolution terrain information to better estimate flood depths, which it calls "the critical factor in estimating damage.''
Even before Biggert-Waters, some Tampa Bay condo associations were challenging their flood map designations.
Four years ago, Kipps Colony One, on Boca Ciega Bay in Gulfport, was in an unusual situation. Each of its three buildings lay partly in the VE zone, partly in the AE zone. For flood insurance purposes, all three buildings were at the highest risk, resulting in annual premiums of $120,000
"I said it's strange that we are the only VE out here and the rest of Gulfport is all AE,'' recalled Jane Freel, president of the condo association.
The 44-unit complex is not directly on the gulf, so it is not subject to pounding waves. It met federal coastal construction standards when it was built in the late 1980s and early '90s, with garages underneath and the first living areas at least 15 feet above sea level.
Presented with those facts, hydrological studies and other data, FEMA reclassified the buildings into the AE zone. The annual flood insurance premium for the entire complex has plunged to $5,900, less than for some single-family homes.
Also straddling two FEMA flood zones was the Sandpearl condominium tower on Clearwater Beach. A corner of the 15-story building was in the VE zone, so the entire structure was treated as a high-risk property with flood insurance premiums hitting $134,254 a year. And that premium paid for less than the maximum $250,000 worth of coverage for each unit, which lenders have started to require.
When a quote for full coverage came in at nearly $500,000, the condo association hired Floodzone Revisions to help get its flood zone changed.
"We knew this would be a very good investment, because it would pay for itself in basically less than a year,'' said property manager Joyce Gonzalez.
FEMA reclassified the Sandpearl into the AE zone, and its new flood policy, which took effect in October, cost $15,290.
Morris, the Floodzone Revisions president, listed several reasons why a property might be in the wrong flood zone. Among them: natural or man-made changes over time that affect flood patterns. In the Sandpearl's case, the beach dune in front had grown, affording more protection from waves.
But when the owners of a nearby property approached Morris for help, he turned them down because he knew a map revision wouldn't be feasible in their case.
"I told them, '(the Sandpearl has) a dune that's growing and you don't', '' he said.
More successful was the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach, which had its flood zone changed five years ago from VE to AE. And a third big Clearwater property, the Wyndham Garden, is currently seeking a map revision to lower its flood insurance premiums, city officials say.
Not all FEMA revisions involve coastal properties.
Ashford Green, a 52-unit condo complex in Tampa near the University of South Florida, originally was in an A zone, a less risky zone than VE and AE but one that still requires flood insurance. With Morris' help, the complex was reclassified into the X zone, which requires no insurance.
Douglas Lee, community association manager for the Ashford complex, said he was so pleased with the results that he's seeking the same thing for another condo complex a half-mile away.
All cities and counties that participate in the national flood program have staffers who serve as liaisons to FEMA. But their role is limited: They can review applications but cannot overrule FEMA's decision to reclassify a property. And most don't have the expertise to even offer an informed opinion on the complex computer modeling that often accompanies applications for zone changes.
In Treasure Island's case, "what we've done as a city, we've essentially allowed FEMA to serve as our technical reviewer,'' said Paula Cohen, the city's liaison with the federal agency. "I don't have reason to believe they don't review it correctly.''
What can get lost is local expertise on how even minor storms can affect neighborhoods. Tropical Storm Debby in 2012, for instance, flooded some homes and made streets impassable, Cohen noted.
Does she worry that reclassifying three of her city's gulf-front complexes into lower-risk zones might give residents a false sense of security?
"Not necessarily,'' she said. "I think our residents are always paying attention to the weather, the storm warnings and the emergency alerts.''
With FEMA map revisions slashing flood insurance premiums for many high-end coastal properties, critics charge that the revisions are a giveaway to the rich at the expense of less wealthy property owners.
Many of the waterfront complexes seeking revisions don't have particularly expensive units. But add up the number of units and the potential savings in even a relatively modest complex can be "humongous,'' compared with those for single-family homes, Morris said.
Getting reclassified from a higher- to a lower-risk flood zone "has nothing to do with if your property is worth $10 million or $5,'' he said. "The map revision has to be technically feasible, and for most properties located in VE flood zones it won't be.''
Still, he notes, "there are still a lot of properties in VE zones that will qualify for map revisions.''