(TNS) - Like many floodplain communities, Packwood faces extra hurdles to its development. New structures must be elevated, building permits are more cumbersome and septic systems must be far more robust.
There’s just one problem — Packwood has never flooded, at least in living memory.
“I’ve been here 40 years, and I’ve never seen water in downtown,” said Packwood resident Maree Lerchen. “I live downtown, and I don’t have flood insurance.”
While massive floods have swamped places like Centralia and Chehalis in recent years, Packwood has stayed high and dry. According to a government map, though, it sits in the floodplain, making it subject to all sorts of regulatory hassles.
“This makes it exponentially harder to try to develop in Packwood,” said county manager Erik Martin. “We’re working on finding some funding sources to work on a map amendment to try to correct that map, which we believe is incorrect.”
The map in question was created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1981, a Flood Insurance Rate Map that shows the area expected to be inundated during a 100-year-flood event — more accurately described as a flood that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in a given year. Such an event devastated the county in 2007, when the Chehalis River swelled over its banks, but Packwood residents on the Cowlitz River aren’t sure how they ended up with the same designation as areas that have actually been underwater.
The map shows a belt of flooding around the Cowlitz north of downtown Packwood, widening to envelop downtown and swamping a large area west and south of town. According to FEMA floodplain specialist John Graves, the Packwood map shows what’s known as “sheet flow” flooding, comparable to water running over a car’s windshield, as opposed to a specific channel.
That kind of flooding is “extraordinarily rare,” Graves said, and usually occurs near a geographical feature called an alluvial fan, which Packwood does not appear to have. A 100-year flood event, he said, is predicted to inundate the community to a depth of three feet.
Because Packwood is not incorporated, it falls to county officials to take on the floodplain issue, since the area is designated as unincorporated Lewis County. To remove the floodplain tag, they’ll have to wade through a bureaucratic tangle at the state and federal levels. FEMA allows counties to submit a Letter of Map Revision, which must be accompanied by a set of forms that include topographical data and a hydrology and hydraulics study — all of which the county must pay consultants to produce.
Once the county has gathered the data, FEMA will run it through a 90-day review and either ask for more data or start an appeals process. If the revision makes it that far, the agency will ask for community comments before making it effective.
That process, though, won’t get the county very far unless it starts at the state level first, said Graves.
“We look to the states to tell us what their priorities are,” he said. “If this area is interested in getting a new study, they need to bring that up through the state. That’s the easiest way to get the attention of our engineers.”
If the Washington Department of Ecology declares Packwood a priority, then FEMA might be compelled to take a look at the issue. For now, the county is just in the fact-gathering stage, looking at potential ways to move forward.
“We’re talking to consultants and experts in those fields about what that might look like,” Martin said. “Until we really dig in and start scoping it out, we’re not sure. It’s probably going to be a considerable effort, but we’re going to take a shot at it.”
Packwood residents say the effort is particularly important, because the community is poised for growth as the area becomes a tourist hotbed.
“We’re becoming sort of a resort community,” said Lerchen, a real estate broker. “We have a burgeoning vacation rental business.”
County commissioner Gary Stamper, whose district includes Packwood, also said the floodplain designation has hampered development.
“When it’s in the floodplain like that, you’re limited on what you can do, and you’ve got to elevate houses,” he said. “It’s a more expensive process than what it was before.”
Matt Matayoshi, executive director of the Lewis Economic Development Council, said he knows an individual who owns four lots in Packwood and was looking to develop. They quickly found out they would need to add fill to the lots to bring them above the floodplain or build structures to floodplain code — both extremely cost-prohibitive.
“They’ve chosen to not do anything with the properties,” he said.
Lerchen has led an informal community effort to try to build a sewage infrastructure in Packwood, which she believes would be a huge boost to the community. At present, many of the plots in downtown Packwood don’t have the space necessary for the septic systems required in a floodplain. That’s why Packwood doesn’t have any water-intensive businesses like a laundromat or car wash, she said.
“It’s very frustrating, especially from a business perspective,” she said. “The downtown business core is stagnant, because we just don’t have any more land to put septic systems in.”
Lerchen has been working on the sewage project for two decades, but she said recently the “stars have aligned,” with buy-in from county commissioners, state legislators and the Economic Development Council. Water-Sewer District 3, which would operate the sewer system when completed, has agreed to assume the responsibility.
With the floodplain designation, though, even the sewage project faces a literal uphill battle because of the problem it was designed to help. The current map would require pumping sewage out of the floodplain, requiring pumping stations and an extra mile of pipe — which Lerchen said is about $1 million per mile.
“We have to have an affordable system,” she said. “It’s a lot more affordable if you don’t have to pump it uphill out of the flood zone.”
Stamper said the county will likely put together a public meeting once it has a plan, using residents’ feedback to demonstrate to the state that the issue deserves priority status.
“It’s a huge issue for those community members up there that needs to be addressed,” Matayoshi said. “It will take several years to do the amendment to their map. I’m optimistic, though.”
Lerchen said she is committed to see the change through as well.
“We just keep plugging away,” she said. “They know I’m determined. I just may get too old before it happens. They’re gonna have to carry me out.”
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