Out of Harm's Way

Fearing Floods, Some Homeowners Elevate Their Historic Houses

New Orleans resident Michael Homan hired a crew to raise his historic house three feet.

Credit: Michael Homan

In the wake of last week's catastrophic flooding from Nashville to Atlanta, just months after similar flooding in Rhode Island and other Northeast states in late March, many historic property owners are wondering what to do to avoid flood damage.

Throughout history, owners of properties in flood-prone areas have struggled with this question. Some settlements have been abandoned after severe flooding; others have been relocated. One such example is Soldier's Grove, Wis., which was rebuilt on higher ground after the Kickapoo River flooded the town for the eighth time in 1978. When the area's worst recorded flood hit in 2007, the residents were high and dry in modern-era homes. Its historic downtown had been demolished with the move, leaving little to be harmed by the river's floodwaters.

For historic property owners who consider that outcome unacceptable but cannot bear the thought of cleaning up after another flood, other options —namely, elevation and relocation—exist. However, both can be tricky projects and can affect the property owner and the community in unexpected ways.

Federal Stance

Property owners that are insured under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) may be eligible for up to $30,000 in increased cost of compliance (ICC) grant funding to mitigate future risk to flooded homes. This federal grant money, which is available for the elevation, relocation, demolition, or reconstruction of properties to comply with local or state floodplain ordinances, is available to owners of all structures, including historic ones. To qualify, the properties must be certified by a local official as meeting certain criteria, including sustaining substantial damage (50 percent of before-damage costs) or repetitive loss.

This funding, and other hazard-mitigation grants sometimes offered by FEMA, dovetails with a NFIP requirement for participating communities to require mitigation when properties are 50 percent or repetitively damaged. However, as many property owners have discovered, historic properties in National Register Districts—or those individually listed on the National Register—can be exempted from this mitigation requirement.

Losing Status in New Orleans

Many of FEMA's flood-mitigation documents fail to mention this exemption—an oversight that confuses homeowners and recently caused the City of New Orleans to stop issuing permits to purchasers of damaged properties that the state acquired with federal funds. (At press time, the city had not confirmed it would reverse its stance.) Nevertheless, the exemptions are federal law, and many local governments (ironically, including New Orleans) and historic commissions have policies that support or further enhance these regulations.

In Sonoma County, Calif., for example, the Sonoma County Landmarks Commission has detailed guidelines for moving historic homes. The area, which has previously experienced severe flooding from the Russian River and other waterways, requires all proposals for relocating historic homes to come before its Landmarks Commission for approval.

The Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) has developed approval guidelines for elevating historic homes "in conformance with new FEMA and NFIP requirements, and National and State historic preservation guidance." Specifically, to be eligible for federally funded grant mitigation programs, owners of contributing structures must submit proposals for review and obtain certification from the State Historic Preservation Office before they can receive all grant funding.

Clearing the Storm of Confusion

In essence, owners of flooded historic properties are eligible for risk-mitigation funding and grants but are not required to elevate or move threatened homes. Furthermore, some, but not all, local entities place additional restrictions on mitigation projects. These exemptions and restrictions don't mean a homeowner shouldn't take action. Rather, if they do, they should proceed only with full awareness of the potential effects.

As Nicole Hobson-Morris, executive director for the state of Louisiana's Division of Historic Preservation, points out, "Our office cannot stop an applicant from elevating their home."

Nevertheless, she says, elevating a home without the blessing of the state historic preservation office (SHPO) can mean the owner will lose eligibility for state and federal preservation tax credits and restoration grants. According to National Park Service Historian Edson Beall, the National Register defers to the SHPO on approval for federal preservation tax credits, because the SHPO determines whether or not modifications to a structure, including elevation, will cause it to lose its contributing or landmark status.

"I wasn't able to raise my house as much as I would have liked," says New Orleans resident Michael Homan, who worked through the elevation process of his historic home with the SHPO. "We had to make sure the front of our house looked the same as it did before, but we [were able to raise it] three feet." Homan says they also were eligible for $45,000 in grant funding during a second round of preservation grants awarded in New Orleans post Katrina.

Both Hobson-Morris and Beall confirm that keeping the home's appearance compatible with its era—and its height from the ground close to that of other comparable homes on the block—are keys to elevating without losing contributing status. "Sometimes the SHPOs will contact us for a second opinion," says Beall. "They'll ask us something like, 'Does this property still look like an 1850's cottage?'"

Rigid Rules

Moving an historic house brings an entirely different rulebook into play, says Beall, and directly involves the National Register for Historic Places. "The guidelines for moving an historic structure are detailed on our site," says Beall (at www.nps.gov/history/nr/regulations.htm#6014). "The owner should notify the SHPO in advance, and they will file a notice with us. The National Register has 45 days to act on the application, but the SHPO can ask us to expedite the request if necessary." If the request to move the structure is not approved ahead of time, Beall says, the property will be delisted from the National Register, and the owner will have to request relisting—with no guarantee of success.

Beall and Hobson-Morris both recommend owners considering moving their homes look for locations where the property will fit, in terms of architectural style and historic era. Keeping the property within its previous National Register District is also recommended, if possible.

Maintaining contributing status is important for more than the owner of a property. Every property in a National Register District that loses its contributing status or leaves reduces the integrity of the district. If enough integrity is lost, the keeper of the National Register may redraw the district's boundaries or eliminate the designation altogether. That would cause everyone inside the former district to lose eligibility for National Register-related restoration tax credits and grants.

Furthermore, not following preservation guidelines when elevating or moving historic structures in flood-prone areas could actually increase the cost of flood insurance for property owners and the community. The Mississippi guidance document mentioned earlier notes that "applicants must maintain the historic integrity of their property to continue to qualify for flood insurance at the most advantageous rate." Additionally, per a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation brochure, some communities can earn points towards reductions in NFIP policy premiums by adopting more stringent verbiage— but only if they exclude properties that qualify as "historic structures" from those controls.

In the end, Beall says, "We want to save historic structures." If elevating or moving them—within acceptable parameters—removes them from the threat of continued flooding, the final result is a win for everyone.

Read more: Disaster Response

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