Georgia Flood Insurance Rate Map

A collage of two panels of Georgia's Flood Insurance Rate Map from FEMA.

GEORGIA — New zoning regulations from Georgia’s development review board and planning commission rethink the use of buffer zones in relation to the town's waterways.

The new regulations are meant to get people better insurance rates, said Suzanna Brown, chair of the planning commission and development review board, in an Oct. 22 interview with the Messenger.

Buffer zones vs. river corridors

Instead of buffer zones, which require new developments to be a specified distance away from the waterway, the DRB now uses river corridors.

The move is part of a state project to bring more nuance into the conversation when thinking about floodplain management and protection for new properties. As the state experiences an increase in catastrophic precipitation events due to climate change, the move from buffer zones to river corridors allows for more variability.

Essentially, instead of just measuring a certain distance from the river, the town will think about the meander of the river, the type of soil, if there are steep slopes that could wash out, etc.

“There's a lot of other calculations that go into it, not just where the river is,” Brown said.

Because the DRB is using this more nuanced approach, it should have a positive effect on developers and builders’ insurance rates.

Statewide push for more nuanced protection

The guidance for these regulations comes from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s Floodplain Management department, which serves as a liaison between towns and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and provides technical assistance and support to towns regarding the National Flood Insurance Program and general floodplain and river protections.

The National Flood Insurance Program, which was created in the late 1960s, allowed towns to access flood insurance in exchange for those towns promising to regulate developments like new houses and buildings that occur within the floodplain areas.

The Floodplain Management department works on two levels: making sure that towns have the minimum regulations for FEMA standards so they are able to get that insurance and also more comprehensively advising towns on how to think about the more systemic effects of their regulations in relation to one’s neighbor or the greater floodplain itself, said Rebecca Pfieffer, DEC Floodplain Manager for the Northwest Region.

FEMA’s maps don’t track every floodplain in Georgia; they tend to map larger areas where there’s likely to be larger development. The floodplains mapped for Georgia according to FEMA are then pretty limited, Pfieffer said.

Georgia itself has a little bit of the Lamoille River coming into Arrowhead Lake, Stonebridge Brook and a handful of other large tributaries, but other than that, Georgia mostly consists of surface water and streams that drain directly into the lake and aren’t mapped by FEMA.

What the state has realized over the last 20 years is that while FEMA’s maps are good for seeing where floods happen, a lot of the damage across the state tends to come from erosion, Pfieffer said.

Therefore the state has been improving their maps with the use of river corridors, which predict where rivers are potentially going to be moving toward.

Pfieffer said she likes to think of the difference between a buffer zone and a river corridor like a bowling alley.

“It's a set corridor that the stream may move within, but in most cases that corridor doesn't really change or move unless the river makes some very dramatic changes,” she said. “The buffer moves with the rivers, but the corridors are more like the river moves within the corridor.”

In Georgia, as a town whose greatest threats are not mapped by FEMA, these river corridors bring more protection for the hazards that exist there.

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