Homeowners: enforcement botched

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 7, 1999

A lawsuit filed by homeowners claiming Lawrence County was negligent in enforcing floodplain regulations likely will head to U.

Thursday, October 07, 1999

A lawsuit filed by homeowners claiming Lawrence County was negligent in enforcing floodplain regulations likely will head to U.S. District Court next year.

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Attorneys have spent the last week taking depositions in the federal case and indicate a trial should start in July, county commission president Bruce Trent said.

Because the case is in active litigation, Trent said he could not comment further. The county’s floodplain management staff could not comment, either, they said.

Filed by 34 homeowners, two businesses and a fire department in eastern Lawrence County in May 1998, the suit alleges that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and county commissioners from several terms approved regulations but waited four years before beginning enforcement, which recently caused financial hardship for homeowners facing violations.

The suit seeks to stop any suspension of flood insurance by FEMA and a judgment that the county’s floodplain regulations are invalid. It also seeks a judgment that plaintiffs’ structures built between Sept. 26, 1989, and Oct. 12, 1993, do not violate regulations.

Through its insurance company, Buckeye Self-insurance Council, the commission hired attorney Randy Lambert to represent the county.

The county has filed a response to allegations, and both sides have been interviewing potential witnesses, but Lambert could not be reached for further comment.

The lawsuit stemmed from regulatory actions the county began in 1996 when trying to meet a FEMA directive to comply with the National Flood Insurance Program – the same action that resulted in Tuesday’s lifting of the county’s "probationary status" with the NFIP.

In 1996, FEMA identified more than 100 structures built in violation of the county’s floodplain regulations. County officials began notifying the homeowners that they were not in compliance.

Within the next year and a half, residents met with commissioners, FEMA officials and state representatives seeking answers to compliance questions.

In many cases, complying seemed to indicate homeowners would have to elevate homes out of the floodplain – an expensive proposition one homeowner called as costly as building a new house.

Commissioners said their hands were tied by having to meet the federal government’s directive and said if homeowners did not come into compliance, then they would face civil court action.

Homeowners complained about the commission’s action, claiming that the county waited too long to enforce regulations and that although floodplain permits were required before building, no permits were available at first.

Eventually, they filed a federal lawsuit in Cincinnati, claiming civil rights violations and personal injury.

The suit alleges the issue began when the county first entered the flood insurance program.

Through the National Flood Insurance Act, Congress formed the NFIP and FEMA issued floodplain regulations, establishing eligibility for individuals and governmental bodies, the suit stated.

As a condition of participating in the NFIP, the county commission implemented a floodplain ordinance Sept. 29, 1989. But the commission did not publicize or conduct the required two public hearings on the regulations, the suit alleged.

Then, on Oct. 12, 1993, the county re-adopted the floodplain regulations subsequent to the required hearings. All but three of the plaintiffs had constructed their structures between the two dates, the suit stated.

FEMA knew about the county’s delay and permitted the county to disregard enforcement between May 1992 and January 1996, yet the county bears much of the blame, the suit alleged.

"The county commissioners deliberate and/or negligent efforts to retroactively enforce the (floodplain regulations), at the direction of FEMA, and in an attempt to salvage Lawrence County’s eligibility and participation in the NFIP, has caused the plaintiffs to lose all economically beneficial use of their land," according to the lawsuit.

Monetary damages sought by the homeowners include compensation equal to the fair market value of real estate affected and court costs.

Plaintiffs in the suit are Patrick T. and Alisa K. Raines, Eugene and Sherry Wells, James R. and Dorothy Castleberry, Gary L. and Aletha L. Webb, Robert D. and Amy K. Robinson, Michael and Kamela Bennett, Ora Mae White, Gary and Ruth Saunders, Ali and Shirley Golji, Robert and Charlene Carpenter, Paul and Dorinda Lucas, Jerry and Pat Young, Charles and Joan Stephens, Homer and Carol Holland, Mike and Robin Nichols, Anthony Fulks, Proctorville Volunteer Fire Department, Arrick’s Bottled Gas Inc., The storage Plus Partnership, Billy R. and Theresa Moore, and Paul and Colleen Woodbury.

Defendants, in addition to FEMA and the county, include individual commissioners and former commissioners Dr. Carl Baker, George Patterson, Bruce Trent, Terry Null and Karen Matney-Simmons.