Lee flood elevation study in jeopardy

LEESBURG -- There was a hint of defiance in the Leesburg City Council's surprising vote Tuesday night not to participate in funding a proposed flood study if the Lee County Commission held to its plan to pay only $37,599 of the $74,400 the study would cost.

Following an outline of the county's proposal by Lee Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander, Leesburg Councilman Steve Kitchens immediately offered a motion not to appropriate city funding for the study.

In response to a question by fellow Council member Sidney Johnson, Kitchens said, "Yes, this plan impacts Leesburg, but it impacts Lee County a whole lot more. I think the county should up its share."

Lee County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said Wednesday morning the county had no more money to offer.

"When this issue came before the Board, we knew we needed to provide some funds to help Leesburg," Duffy said. "All we had left in our contingency fund was $10,000, so (Commissioner) Bill Williams and I went through our budget line by line to try and find additional money. We came up with $27,559, which gave us an opportunity to pay half the cost.

"Given that 60 (of the 88 impacted) houses are in Leesburg, I thought that was more than fair. If we weren't concerned with trying to find the funding, we wouldn't have gone through the budget so carefully. I'm not upset by their action, but I don't understand why they turned down what I thought was a generous offer."

Leesburg Mayor Jim Quinn, who told the Council Tuesday "some of the houses (affected) are in Leesburg, but all of them are in Lee County," said Wednesday the Council's action was not meant as a swipe at the county.

"Frankly, I was surprised that there was a unanimous vote to oppose (the county's proposal)," Quinn said. "But I support the Council's decision. According to the county's comprehensive plan, they are responsible for this study. I think the city should participate in the funding, but not at this level. I mean, we're not even sure what that level is ... Do they expect 25 percent from us and 25 percent from Smithville or 45 percent from us ...?

"Everyone's budget is tight right now, and the bottom line is we hope the county will chip in more of the cost. As far as the city is concerned, even if we wanted to fund (the remainder of the study), we don't have the money in our budget now."

The dispute centers around FEMA-generated flood plain mapping released at the end of 2009 that moved some 88 houses in Lee County that had never before experienced flooding into the flood plain. That meant the owners of those houses would be expected to purchase expensive flood insurance.

At the city's request, Lee County sought bids for a study of the regions in question to determine actual flood elevations, the basis for determining the true flood plain.

"The fact that actual flood elevations will be set (through the engineering study) makes this something we need to do," Lee County Commissioner Rick Muggridge said. "It kind of surprises me finding out that they rejected our proposal; I thought a 50-50 split seemed like a pretty fair deal. Plus, that was not an arbitrary number; that's the extent of what the county can do right now."

Alexander, who said Wednesday that the houses new to the flood plain may get a "grandfather" break in flood insurance costs because they were built before the new FEMA map was drawn, also said he "leaned toward encouraging the study" because it will affect future development in the county.

"The development that is projected in the county needs to be taken into consideration," the planning director said. "Because while this (map) directly impacts the (88) houses drawn into the flood plain, it also affects any future construction on land that is not currently developed that is in the (newly drawn) flood plain.

"It's going to make building on any of this land cost-prohibitive because of the high price of flood insurance."

While Alexander said he will go through with plans to present the county's proposal at the Smithville City Council meeting on March 16, Quinn said he hopes the planned study doesn't die because of the decision made by the Council on Tuesday.

"I think this issue needs to be discussed again, if not now when funding is available," the mayor said. "Because (setting elevation levels) needs to be done. Uncertainty over flood elevations is why we didn't get the Harvey's (grocery store) in the city. If we're going to experience growth, we've got to get this done."