2012-09-14 / Front Page

Rising sea levels an issue for Saco Bay

Town Council sends ordinance proposal to Planning Board
By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer


With sea levels expected to rise two feet by 2100, residents in Scarborough may soon be required to take steps to protect their seaside properties, including along the confluence of the Scarborough River and Atlantic Ocean in Pine Point, above. (Michael Kelley photo) With sea levels expected to rise two feet by 2100, residents in Scarborough may soon be required to take steps to protect their seaside properties, including along the confluence of the Scarborough River and Atlantic Ocean in Pine Point, above. (Michael Kelley photo) Scarborough has changed a lot in the last 100 years, but town officials are urging residents not to reminisce about the past, but rather prepare for the future, especially those with waterfront homes.

On Wednesday, Sept. 5, the Town Council took its first look at a series of ordinance changes that would require homeowners in the 100-year floodplain to raise their property an additional two feet off ground in anticipation of rising sea levels.

The council has passed the ordinance changes on to the Planning Board, which will review them and make a recommendation before handing it back off to the council for a final decision. Assistant Town Planner Jay Chace said the exact timetable has not been decided.


A rise in sea level over the next 80-plus years could impact the Pine Point and Higgins Beach areas of Scarborough as well as the Route 1 and Eastern Trail sections of Scarborough Marsh the most. (Michael Kelley photo) A rise in sea level over the next 80-plus years could impact the Pine Point and Higgins Beach areas of Scarborough as well as the Route 1 and Eastern Trail sections of Scarborough Marsh the most. (Michael Kelley photo) How to prepare for rising sea levels is not an issue that Scarborough officials are dealing with alone.

In 2010, the town joined forces with the communities of Biddeford, Old Orchard Beach and Saco to form the Saco Bay Sea Level Advisory Working Group. The group has met regularly over the past two years to come up with an action plan to combat rising sea levels.

“The purpose of (the Sea Level Advisory Working Group) is to develop and implement regional climate strategies to respond to rising sea levels and become more resilient to coastal storms in the Saco Bay region,” Chace wrote in a letter to the Town Council.

The working group has discussed several implementation strategies, including one that would require homeowners in the 100-year flood zone to raise structures on the property three feet above sea level. The current town ordinance requires structures to be one foot above sea level.

Doing so, Chace wrote, will “enhance the resilience of the structure by creating extra space under which tidal surges can flow.”

Chace told the Council at the meeting that this requirement would only apply to new construction or renovations.

Data from the Portland tide gauge indicates since 1912, sea level has risen more than seven inches. By 2100, the sea level is expected to rise another two feet, or 24 inches. The two-foot rise, however, does not include effects from freshwater runoff, or additional water levels in freshwater rivers, streams and marshes.

The working group, Chace said, did a mapping analysis using geographic information systems to determine the impact of the sea level rise on private homes, businesses and public infrastructure.

According to a 2010 SLAWG Vulnerability Assessment, more than 600 structures, with a structure and land value of more than $98 million, could be impacted if sea levels were to rise an additional two feet.

Under a worst-case scenario — such as the storm that hit the area in 1978 — more than 1,100 structures, valued at $311 million, could be impacted.

Old Orchard Beach could see as much as $461 million in property affected.

Many of the vulnerable structures are located at Higgins Beach, Pine Point and in uplands adjacent to the Scarborough Marsh and the Scarborough River.

Chace said late last week that additional sections of town vulnerable to rising sea levels are Route 1, sections of Black Point Road and Winnock Necks Road, the Eastern Trail and the Downeaster train rail line.

“We don’t want to scare anyone, but the fact is, people need to think about being better prepared,” said Town Councilor Carol Rancourt.

John Delahanty, who owns property on King Street in Pine Point, said it is important for homeowners to be familiar with the fact the sea level is rising, but also with the possibility the Federal Emergency Management Agency may be coming out with new floodplain maps.

To help in that regard, Delahanty suggested the town hold a neighborhood meeting to help property owners understand the impact of the rising sea level and the possibility of new FEMA maps.

“I would hope that you take this opportunity to ensure property owners are fully aware of what is underway,” he said.

It was an idea that resonated with Council Chairman Ron Ahlquist.

“I like the idea of community outreach meetings,” Ahlquist said. “It’s been effective in the past and people really seem to like it. The more information we can get out there (the better).”

Chace said FEMA came out with new floodplain maps in 2010, but they were “met by a lot of opposition by communities in southern Maine.”

“There were some fundamental issues with their modeling. They have gone back, taken another look and have reviewed the maps using revised modeling and data sets,” Chace said.

Sue Baker, the state coordinator for the National Flood Insurance Program, said preliminary maps from FEMA are expected by March or April of 2013. Final maps are expected by the summer of 2014.

The new FEMA maps, when they get approved, would replace the ones the town is currently using, which Chace said date back to the late 1980s.

Like in 2010, Baker said there will be ample opportunity for the public to discuss the latest changes to FEMA maps.

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