BROOKSVILLE — Earlier this year, John Sampson had hoped to cash in on the low interest rates and refinance his Royal Highlands retirement home.
But instead of a simple process, he found himself tangled in red tape. His home had landed in a flood zone when the Federal Emergency Management Agency finalized new county flood maps in February, and that means he now needed flood insurance to satisfy his mortgage company.
Sampson said his home is built higher than the flood elevation and he is fighting the designation. He has scrambled to get a survey and spent hours on research to figure out the right course of action.
He also is going through the lengthy process of seeking a Letter of Map Adjustment from FEMA.
He is especially aggravated that the county never gave him individual notice that the change was coming.
"No one had any idea this was going on,'' said Sampson, who has sought help from U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent to change the requirements of notification for the future. "I feel like we weren't given a chance to dispute it.''
Sampson's is not an isolated case. More than 24,000 Hernando households that had not been in the flood plain are now designated in an area prone to flooding, according to the county's estimate.
The county publicized the redrawn maps for months, held public meetings on them in mid 2010 and advertised a time frame, which ended in early 2011, when disputes could be filed. Only seven people disputed their designation.
Sampson said both his bank and his insurance agent told him they have been getting regular questions from residents just learning they may need flood insurance. The county has also been inundated with questions.
"We're getting a lot of calls,'' said John Burnett, the county's water resource specialist. "Unfortunately, the thing is, the mortgage companies are giving people a very short time line in which to respond.''
In some cases, he said, just 30 days. That is not a lot of time for people to buy flood insurance or learn how to be grandfathered in at a cheaper insurance rate.
In some cases that could require homeowners to hire surveyors or other professionals to determine the elevation of their homes. Each mortgage or insurance company can require a different level of proof.
For example, if a mortgage company blanketed all its Hernando County customers with letters about the flood zones and some of the properties were nowhere near the flood plains, the county can issue a letter of determination by the county's flood plain administrator, Burnett said.
But for some institutions, that won't be proof enough, he said.
One good thing is that most of the people who are now in a flood zone were not in one previously.
That means, in many cases, that the home is grandfathered and is eligible for less-expensive flood insurance for a time.
That still requires quick action by homeowners to satisfy FEMA's requirements, including proving that, at the time of development, their property met the requirements in force, Burnett said.
The difference in premiums can be significant.
Sampson is paying $343 for his annual premium because he had time for the home to get grandfathered. In two years, that will increase about $1,000 if he cannot prove his home is above the flood plain.
The word about the flood maps has been spreading since the FEMA acceptance, Burnett said. He said some people who are considering purchasing homes in the area have called the county to ask a property's flood plain status.
It took years to develop the new maps and the process included the county, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and FEMA.
The new maps replace those drawn in 1984 that were based on a review of just three areas of the county: the coastal zone, prone to coastal surge; the Withlacoochee River area, known for river flooding; and a stretch from north of Brooksville along U.S. 41 to Masaryktown, which experienced major flooding in the 1950s.
The product of extensive watershed studies, the 148 new maps include an aerial photograph background showing more detail than the old maps.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.