I once put a contract on 22-acres of the most beautiful pasture you’ve ever seen. Rolling hills, $2,800/acre, 500ft of creek frontage a mere 100yds from the main channel of the Coosa River. The price should have been my first indication that something wasn’t quite right. This experience was early in our education buying rural property, and it would prove an invaluable lesson that every potential land buyer should avoid at all costs.
Up to that point it hadn’t occurred to me that the property might be in a floodplain. A friend who lives on Logan Martin happened to mention in passing one day that his lake house was in a floodplain, and suddenly it clicked: in all of our due diligence, that’s one factor we hadn’t even considered. I immediately started reading on the subject and my heart skipped a beat… actually, I think for a few minutes it may have stopped all together. Our property was well within the 100-year floodplain, and it was never going to perc without an incredibly expensive engineered septic system.
A quick call to the local floodplain manager confirmed what the online mapping seemed to be indicating. There was no hope, and the broker and owner knew it from the start. Luckily, my knowledge of legal contracts was considerably better than my understanding of floodplains at the time. While the land wouldn’t perc, my contract probably would. It was so full of holes that I was able to easily withdraw our offer and recover our earnest money. Had my awful discovery come just two weeks later it would have been disastrous.
The Office of Floodplain Management
I have a love/hate relationship with the Office of Floodplain Management. I guess it’s really more like a tolerate/hate relationship. On one hand, they do provide a service to the community helping make sure that people don’t have their homes destroyed by flood waters without warning. On the other hand, the federal government has been using the agency’s power to push its socialist/environmentalist goals, forcing more and more people into urban centers, ala UN Agenda 21. Every year the Feds are expanding the recognized borders of the floodplains rendering more and more rural property useless for residential purposes. With less rural acreage available in the market, the per-acre prices rise forcing more and more people to look for lower-cost housing in concentrated urban areas. Once a county accepts FEMA dollars (ie. the tornadoes that ravaged much of St. Clair County recently), they are forced into the rules of federal floodplain management, which from my experience is run like the mafia. No one will put anything in writing, and nothing is said definitively. It’s all suggestion for your benefit.
“We can’t tell you where you can build or not. We don’t have the authority to stop you from building, but it’s really best if you let me come out to the property and tell you where you can build…”
“So you’re saying I’ll get a document saying that where I plan to build is OK?”
“Oh, no, no, no… you don’t need that. We can’t do that. I’ll just tell you where you should build, and everything will be good.”
You see, they tell you over and over that they don’t have any real power, but the truth is that they know if they decide your property is in a floodplain, you can’t get a permit for a septic system… which means you can’t legally build a house. After all of the experiences with The Ant Farm, my official policy is to avoid inviting any government agency on to my land for any purpose whatsoever…
Problems with Floodplains
There are three big problems that the floodplain issue brings. The first is obvious. If you build your homestead and a huge flood washes through, everything will be destroyed. By building in a floodplain you are gambling life and property on a 99% chance that there will not be a catastrophic flood in a given year. That’s what a 100-year floodplain is: a one in 100 chance. While those might not seem like terrible odds, we are building a life that we hope will be passed on to our children and then our grandchildren. Stack those odds across three generations, and suddenly, you’re looking at significantly worse odds.
As mentioned above, the second issue with floodplains is that the health department won’t give you a permit for a septic system if the tanks and lines will be located within the floodplain. The soil won’t perc if the property is under water (you can read more about perc tests here), and in the event of a flood, the flood water would be seriously contaminated by raw sewage seeping from your septic system.
Then there’s the issue with flood insurance. If you’re looking to borrow money to buy land or build in a floodplain, you may end up paying insane premiums for flood insurance. Depending on the government classification of the floodplain area and the type of structure you’re building, the annual premiums can literally run up into the thousands.
Steps to Take
There are two basic ways to determine if your property is in a flood plain. The first is to go to the county office of floodplain management and meet with the floodplain manager to review the maps. I detailed the quicker method in a previous article about Buying Rural Land in Alabama.
However you decide to go about it, make sure that you know what you’re getting into when you’re considering a particular parcel. I’m pretty sure I lost a year or two off of my life from the stress of the whole 22-acre debacle.