Homeowners or developers who believe they're unjustly placed in high-risk zones may appeal to FEMA — as did developers of Hamilton Place in Ashland, successfully — for a Letter of Map Amendment.

On May 3, Steven Lang will get a big present from the federal government — about $1,000 a year — when new flood plain maps go into effect showing that his home, about 200 feet from Griffin Creek in Central Point, is no longer in the "high-risk zone."

"I was randomly flagged two years ago by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and put in the 100-year flood zone. It hurt a lot," said Lang, an unemployed draftsman. "I'm like everyone else. I don't have the money. But I'm going to make some happy phne calls on May 3."

Getting flagged as being in the flood plain shot Lang's homeowner's insurance up from $240 a year to $1,200. He already has a new policy picked out, one he can afford, with Western States Insurance in Medford.

In spite of his improving outlook, Lang expresses suspicion that "something's going on because so many people didn't need flood insurance before, and now they're in the flood plain and there's no option for them. They have to get flood insurance."

Homeowners who find themselves in high-risk flood zones are being encouraged to attend a countywide flood insurance fair, scheduled for 3 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 29, at the Medford Armory, 1701 S. Pacific Highway, where many insurance agents, trained in the new FEMA rules and maps, can "grandfather" their homes into flood insurance based on current rates, said Stephanie Holtey, flood plain and stormwater coordinator for the city of Central Point.

Holtey mailed out 903 cards, "a lot of people for a small town," alerting homeowners to their new status as high-risk flood-zone dwellers, she said.

About two-thirds are confirmed in the 100-year flood zones of the city's seven creeks, and the rest are "very close" to it, she said, adding that all should attend the insurance fair to find the best deal in advance.

Flood insurance can be costly because flooded homes "tend to be very expensive to rehab," says Amy Gunter, a planner for the city of Ashland, who notes that 12 new properties are in the 100-year zones of Ashland and another 24 are "pretty close."

Ashland has a low number of new additions to flood zones, she says, because the city mapped flood zones after the big 1974 flood. In Jackson County, more than 5,000 homes have been newly added to high-risk flood zones.

Flood insurance is required for any houses in 100-year zones that were financed through federally regulated or insured loans.

Insurance is optional in 500-year zones, said Holtey, and for homes that are paid off.

Rates in 500-year zones start around $350. Rates in 100-year zones start at $600 and can go up to several thousand dollars if not well-situated and outfitted with good flood protection, said agent George Perez of Western States Insurance in Medford, who recently took a class on the subject that was offered to local agents.

The new flood-zone maps used improved technology and data to replace 30-year-old maps. Sea level, for instance, is now two feet above where it used to be, says Gunter. In addition, she notes, the big New Year's Day flood of 1997 "scoured" stream beds in Ashland, thus lowering stream levels and moving some properties out of flood zones.

Still, there's a lot of guesswork in any flood map, as evidenced by the fact that a fourth of flood claims nationwide come from outside mapped flood zones, said Gunter.

Homeowners or developers who believe they're unjustly placed in high-risk zones may appeal to FEMA — as did developers of Hamilton Place in Ashland, successfully — for a Letter of Map Amendment.

Can property owners build in a high-risk zone? It all depends. The big factors are the location of the proposed site and flood protections that are planned — especially flood vents, which allow water to pass under a building. For new buildings in Ashland, Gunter notes, main floors must be two feet above the 100-year water line, and HVAC and other mechanicals must be above the ravages of potential floods.

These flood protections, notes Perez, are also the factors that get people into the lower range of flood-insurance premiums.

New risk-zone dwellers who haven't bought policies will be notified by lenders after May 3 that they have 45 days to get insured.

The maps were released and subjected to hearings and public comment periods over the last two years.

Information can be found on FEMA's website at www.fema.gov/plan/prevent/fhm/fq_main.shtm.

New flood plain maps and information can be found on some city websites, but not all.

Ashland's information, including maps, is at http://ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=12713.

Central Point's website is at www.centralpointoregon.gov/publicworks.aspx?id=1030.

Medford's flood information website is at www.ci.medford.or.us/page.asp?navid=626.

Jackson County has some information at www.co.jackson.or.us/page.asp?navid=3029.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.