Members of an Oxnard group that formed to battle federal officials on the standards for enforcing flood insurance say they won’t be scaling back their efforts after it was announced last week that their homes would be temporarily removed from flood zone maps.

“We are still in existence,” says Dave Harris of Oxnard, a charter member of the Flood Zone Justice Association. “We don’t want to dissolve because we need to keep a seat at the table for all the coming developments. We think we need to stick around.”

A letter from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was sent to Oxnard Mayor Tom Holden last week stating that no new flood insurance rate maps, or FIRMs, will be issued for at least 30 months until the agency completes studies of the Santa Clara River, where more than 1,700 homes in the Oxnard area are said to be situated

in a dangerous, high-risk flood zone.

Harris and other Oxnard residents had organized their group this year, contesting perceived inaccuracies in FEMA’s mapping process. They claimed that certain homes and buildings were at a low risk for flooding, questioning why some parcels, revealed in empty “pockets” on flood maps, were flood-zone exempt altogether. Things were complicated further, they say, when FEMA produced revisions to the Oxnard flood overflow region, which apparently charted out a completely different configuration than the previous map.

Homeowners within the flood zone also felt that acquiring expensive insurance mandated by FEMA wasn’t entirely necessary.

FEMA’s newest (Dec. 16) memo was released after Flood Zone Justice’s active pursuit of the issue for months, with the group retaining legal counsel when a communication snafu with FEMA came about. After new flood maps were issued early this year, says Richard Tentler, the group’s attorney, residents had no opportunity to submit feedback because the six-month public comment period, which homeowners believed was starting, was in fact just ending.

“Basically, it meant the residents had no input,” Tentler said. “They were cut off.”

Now, any dispute over flood risk in the Oxnard plain is effectively put on hold.

“Nobody will be considered to be in a flood zone or be required to buy insurance, even though FEMA recommends it,” Harris said.

“Until the new maps are issued, it’s up to the property owners to buy insurance. They have that option,” says Rob Roshanian, the City of Oxnard’s development services manager.

But while insurance at this point isn’t mandatory for Oxnard residents, it’s still a very cost-prohibitive option.

According to Harris, a homeowner in his neighborhood must pay the going rate of $348 a year to receive $250,000 in coverage in the event a major flood should strike.

Flood Zone Justice, he says, is pushing to get the lowest rates possible grandfathered into place upon release of FEMA’s new FIRM, or those prices could cost homeowners five times as much if they still fall within a flood zone.

“It’s always advisable to buy insurance, but it’s a choice until the time that the maps show you,” says Gerard Kapuscik, a special programs manager for the Ventura County Watershed Protection District.

One reason the Oxnard region’s flood zone problem has become so convoluted is that FEMA did not issue one big, comprehensive flood risk map for Ventura County, containing information for three tributaries: the Ventura and Santa Clara rivers, and the Calleguas Creek.

“The problem is that FEMA began its remapping of Ventura County on a watershed-by-watershed basis,” Kapuscik said.

Camarillo and Moorpark had preceded Oxnard in appealing the FEMA flood map process just three years ago, which may have compromised the timeline needed to properly review inaccuracies that members of Flood Zone Justice say got passed and ended up released to the public.

FEMA’s letter to Oxnard, however, doesn’t offer a reprieve to a city like Moorpark, which is situated near the Calleguas. To counteract this, city officials recently approved $100,000 for the city’s engineering department to pay for its own independent study of Moorpark’s three flood zone areas.

Yugal Lall, the city’s chief engineer, said results of the study, which will evaluate more than 1,200 homes and buildings in Moorpark for both their elevation and their distance from the flood zone waterway, will be forwarded to FEMA in hopes that the agency will alter its FIRM for those regions.

“Our objective, in the next three to six months, is to remove as many structures as possible so they (Moorpark residents) do not have to renew their insurance,” he said. “There’s no guarantee, but the city’s positive that these homes will be removed.”

The study, according to Lall, should begin in early 2010. His department, he said, is currently interviewing consultants.
Ventura building officials are also looking to rectify a small discrepancy with FEMA on its flood zone map of the city.

According to Andrew Stuffler, the city’s building officer, 588 buildings are listed on FEMA’s current flood zone records. The city, Stuffler said, is working to change that to 603, the original number contained on the agency’s 1986 map of Ventura.

Tentler says Flood Zone Justice is trying to take a realistic approach to the issue and realizes that not every home in Oxnard will be exempt from FEMA’s new maps when they are released in 2012.

“We’re not fighting to keep everything out forever,” Tentler said. “We do hope the end result will be an accurate map.”

According to Kapuscik, that end product will identify areas at just a 1 percent risk of being flooded annually in Southern California. Previously, the 1 percent standard was that of a 100-year flood prediction. In Ventura County, he said, the last two severe flood events were in 1969 and 2005.   

For more information, visit floodzonejustice.org, or ci.oxnard.ca.us, and click on the “FEMA Floodplain Map Update” tab.

paul@vcreporter.com