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Residents in Scappooses drainage district are being asked to pay a new fee — or pay the consequences

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - Without certification, FEMA will classify 5,700 acres now shielded by the 9.9-mile long Scappoose levee as being in a flood zone.Bill Marinelli wasn’t sure what to make of the 18-page notice he received in late May from the Scappoose Drainage Improvement Company, the volunteer-run tax district that manages operations for Scappoose’s 9.9-mile dike that holds back the waters of the Multnomah Channel.

The notice opens with an invitation to a July 8 meeting characterized in the document as “what could be the most important special meeting of members since the levies [sic] were built.”

It’s chockfull of legalese and lengthy property descriptions, and it prompted no small measure of confusion for Marinelli. Before he moved to 6th Street in Scappoose four years earlier with his wife, Donna, from Portland, he made sure he settled in a location outside of a flood zone. The notice about living in a drainage improvement area set off alarm bells.

“I would have not bought that piece of property, because that is one of the main issues I had coming out of Portland,” said Marinelli, 78, a retired partner in a semiconductor business whose family’s homesteading roots in Columbia County harken back to the 1800s, he said. “We’re elevated up, not as high as the high school is, but we’re elevated up according to the plane of the road.”

In fact, there had been no deception on any realtor’s part, and it’s not too surprising his wallet hadn’t had to feel the pinch from carrying annual flood insurance. A little extra digging revealed a line item on Marinelli’s tax statement for the drainage improvement company. In the three tax years he’s been in Scappoose, he has paid the company $193, including $73.70 last year, a 17 percent year-over-year increase from the prior years’ payments of $60.81.

If the drainage company’s plans prove successful, Marinelli could have to pay a fee on top of the annual tax, too. And, even more daunting, if the plans fail, Marinelli, 750 other households and a valuable collection of businesses and governments — including the city and school district — could find themselves residing in the very flood zone Marinelli was hoping to avoid.

Since 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans that followed due to failed levees, regulators with the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been pressing a nationwide mandate for levee administrators, such as the Scappoose drainage company, to have those dike systmes certified to a new set of safety standards. Work started to certify Scappoose’s levee in 2007.

If the levee is not certified, all properties that currently enjoy its protection will be federally reclassified as existing in a flood zone, as though the levee doesn’t exist. It would trigger massive property devaluations, flood insurance requirements and — should an existing structure suffer from a calamity — any rebuild would likely require it to be built on stilts.

“If we don’t get that certified, then we’re in a flood zone,” said Marie Gadotti, the drainage improvement company’s board president. “There are so many reasons and things that these homeowners are going to pay if we don’t get this certified.”

While there is no deadline for the certification work to conclude, Gadotti said there has been a clear indication from FEMA that taking no action would result in a reclassification to a flood plain.

The problem is that it has been prohibitively expensive to certify the levee and there has been widespread uncertainty about who — private or public agencies — could perform the certification work. At one point, Scappoose dike officials received a $1.2 million estimate just to perform soil samples, an out-of-this-world price tag for an agency that in tax year 2012 generated only $250,000. It’s a nationwide problem.

Though some of the issues have been resolved, the cost is still a big sticking point for the improvement company board. Gadotti said she expects a recent estimate of $200,000 for the Army Corps of Engineers to assess the 1939 levee to be just the tip of the iceberg.

“The cost of doing this certification is huge, and it’s not going to end right now. The thing people need to understand is that Katrina happened and it’s not going away,” she said. “We want people to come to the meeting. It’s one of our chances to let them know this is serious and we’re taking this serious.”

The drainage company board is proposing a fee to be tacked on top of taxes residents living within the drainage company’s boundary already pay. The fee formula, which Gadotti said is modeled on a system Sauvie Island residents had earlier adopted, is complicated and is based on how many acres are owned, elevation and other factors.

The certification, though it satisfies a federal requirement, is not expected to significantly improve the dike, which has survived three 100-year floods since its construction, including the 1996 event.

Gadotti, who lives on Dike Road in clear sight of the levee, said she has no concerns about its integrity. But the threat of having her farm and property, in fact all of the 5,700 acres the levee protects, reclassified as a flood zone is calling for creative measures.

“From a board member’s perspective and from a landowners’ who lives here, I have no fear of the dike,” she said. “But this isn’t what this is all about.”

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