The newly created work group tasked with fixing problems related to recent flooding — such as homeowners being prohibited from making repairs due to a 2006 Metro Council ordinance, and a potential local buyout of their homes — will have its first meeting on Monday, but a handful council members are pushing ahead with an immediate fix of their own.

Councilman Steve Magre, D-10
Councilman Steve Magre, D-10

After a week of examining the issue and speaking with city officials, Councilman Steve Magre, D-10, announced Thursday that he has asked the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office to draft an emergency ordinance to rescind part of the 2006 ordinance that has prohibited hundreds of homeowners from being allowed to repair their flood-damaged homes. Councilman James Peden, R-23, has signed onto the effort as well, and several members of both parties voiced support in their respective caucus meetings on Thursday.

The 2006 ordinance prohibits repairs on homes where total flood damage claims in a 10-year period is over 50 percent of the home’s value, part of an effort to discourage settlement in those areas and lower federal flood insurance costs. However, many homeowners were unaware of the ordinance or were not notified by the Metropolitan Sewer District of how close they were to the 50 percent limit; now they are facing displacement from their homes and the prospect of eating their investment due to the absence of a buyout plan.

“I think rescinding the part of that law which is causing frustration and finger pointing is the best course of action to get people back in their homes,” Magre said in a press release. “Once we get people back in their homes, the new work group can then figure out what is the best way to resolve this situation.”

However, at Thursday’s meeting of the council’s Democratic caucus, Councilman Tom Owen said he is not inclined to support Magre’s effort, citing the negative effects of doing so that were shared with him by MSD.

Councilman Tom Owen, D-8
Councilman Tom Owen, D-8

The 2006 ordinance on the 50 percent rule switched local policy from the state’s one-year period to FEMA’s preferred 10-year period, enabling the city to improve from Category 3 to 4 and have federal flood insurance premiums cut by 5 percent. Owen told IL that while MSD can’t guarantee changing the ordinance would cause FEMA to lower Louisville’s category and raise flood insurance premiums, he says there is the potential for “real peril” as this may lead to increases.

MSD spokesman Steve Tedder told IL on Friday that a 5 percent increase would cause an estimated total annual increase in flood insurance premiums of $273,000 for the 5,096 insured homeowners. That would come out to an average annual increase of $53 per year in their federal flood insurance premiums.

Owen also told his caucus that if the 2006 ordinance is altered, MSD says homeowners in Councilwoman Madonna Flood’s district may no longer be eligible for $30,000 FEMA grants to lift their homes out of the floodplain. Flood said that the intent of the ordinance was to discourage houses along the Ohio River, saying that some homes there valued at $60,000 have spent as much as $440,000 in claims due to repeated flooding.

Council Democrats Dan Johnson and Barbara Shanklin indicated that they would likely support Magre’s effort to alter the 2006 ordinance, saying many of their constituents affected by the flooding are in desperate need of immediate assistance.

In the council’s Republican caucus on Thursday, Councilman James Peden told colleagues he is joining Magre’s efforts out of concern for the affected homeowners, hoping that it speeds up the discussion and pressures the MSD work group to find a prompt solution.

Asked about the threat of flood insurance premiums going up if the 2006 ordinance is altered, Peden told IL that result is not guaranteed, and the council doing so may push FEMA to speed up their notoriously slow process of approving grants to buyout homes.

“If (FEMA) would take the energy needed to threaten us on our insurance rate, and actually devote that to buying these folks out and getting them out of these areas, that would make things a whole lot easier,” said Peden. “We either tell these (homeowners) they’re screwed and you stay here for the good of the community, or we make some sort of change.”

Peden added that another reason he supports the effort to change the 2006 ordinance is a basic matter of fairness, as the government is telling homeowners they can’t repair their homes they have invested in and fully insured, even though they were not notified in advance by MSD that they were approaching the 50 percent rule limit.

“This may be the right-winger in me coming out, but if you’re telling someone they can’t fix their house, to me that’s the equivalent of eminent domain,” said Peden. “But under the constitution, maybe we should just buy them out on our own, like we do for a public works project. If the feds are willing to reimburse us later, so be it. But when you tell a person you’re not going to let them rebuild, we have essentially claimed their house as our own under eminent domain.”

Councilman James Peden, R-23
Councilman James Peden, R-23

Asked if Metro Government should provide funds to bail out the homeowners in the worst shape if no other solution is reached, Peden said that would be “a completely viable alternative.”

“I even told (MSD), why don’t we just match some of these folks up with abandoned houses that we have such a problem with,” said Peden. “Say ‘we’re not going to help you fix this house, but we’ll give you moving costs and you get this one.’ And then we’re all even, and bulldoze (the floodplain house).”

Councilman Kelly Downard also told IL that he is supportive of the plan to change the ordinance. As for the threat of FEMA changing Louisville’s category and raising flood insurance premiums, he said, “I want someone to come in and tell me that’s going to happen… I haven’t heard that yet. I’ve heard hearsay, but it hasn’t been proved.”

One of the reasons the 10-year rule adopted by the 2006 ordinance has caused such a problem for homeowners is that no one expected such frequent major rain events that Louisville has suffered over the last decade, which Peden said was likely a result of climate change — a rare statement for politicians in coal-dominated Kentucky, regardless of party.

“I don’t care what room I’m in (Republican caucus room), climate change is a real thing,” said Peden. “There’s the man-made version, there’s the natural cycle version… but unless you’re running for president, it’s pretty obvious that things are a little different. The fact is that it’s raining more, it’s raining harder, more snow events, more rain events, more heat events. Cyclical or not, man-made or not, it’s still something we have to deal with.”

Asked which camp he belongs to on the topic of climate change, Peden said there is not enough data to determine which is to blame more, but said it likely is a mix of both cyclical weather changes and man-made pollution.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]