SEBRING - The Federal Emergency Management Agency soon is expected to approve new flood plain maps for Highlands County residents that will be used to determine flood insurance rates and may end up raising or lowering premiums for affected residents.
"We are waiting (from FEMA) a letter for final determination that they have approved the maps and the maps are official," said Martin Fitts, a planner with the county.
Before FEMA can officially approve the maps, it has to take into consideration feedback residents provide at public outreach meetings and during a 90-day appeals process that ended May 1, Fitts said.
Once that happens, the Highlands County Board of County Commissioners and the three municipalities can choose to adopt the maps if they want to be a part of the National Flood Insurance Program.
Sebring City Administrator Scott Noethlich said the Sebring City Council had on a recent meeting agenda a motion to adopt the new flood plain maps for Sebring through a proposed ordinance but decided to table the motion until FEMA releases the final maps.
Noethlich hasn't seen the new maps and said he didn't know how many Sebring residents would end up being impacted.
Susanna Martinez Tarokh, Southwest Florida Water Management District spokeswoman, said it is "our understanding that the maps will not be finalized until 2014."
The county has been at the "tail end" of the massive national effort to redraw the maps that provide flood zone and elevation information to help community planners, engineers, builders and others decide where and how new structures should be built.
They will serve as a mapping standard for determining flood insurance rates.
If properties are mapped into a higher risk zone, flood insurance premiums could increase or homeowners could find themselves either inside a flood zone or outside it. Homes financed with a federally backed loan could be required to have flood insurance.
Meanwhile, some coastal communities in Florida are bracing themselves for a big jump in premiums, starting Oct. 1, as changes to the flood insurance program phase out "subsidies" that have kept rates low for insurance on older homes built before flood maps were redrawn to make them accurately reflect financial risk.
About 20 percent of flood insurance policies nationally are subsidized through the flood insurance program, according to FEMA. However, only 5 percent of policyholders - those subsidized policies covering second home, businesses, and severe repetitive loss properties - will see immediate increases to their premiums, FEMA adds.
The biggest immediate impact will be on homebuyers or those who bought their homes in a high-risk area after Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act July 2012. Once their flood insurance policies renew, premiums may go up substantially, some fear.
While public officials, Realtors and residents in the state's coastal areas have begun lobbying congressional leaders to stop or, at least, delay the new law, it does not appear to be an issue locally.
At least one Realtor, Ronnie Carter, said he is looking into it and would have a better idea in two to three days.
C.J. Hamel, a Realtor with RE/MAX Realty Plus, does not think it is an issue in Highlands County.
Hamel said coastal areas typically have much higher premiums than those inland, which also typically are affected less drastically.
"It has not stopped people (here) from buying homes," she said, adding that she hoped it draws homebuyers from coastal areas to central Florida.
While Highlands County residents won't know, until the final maps are released, if they are in a flood hazard area, Spring Lake Improvement District Manager Joe DeCerbo said Spring Lake residents don't have to worry.
Spring Lake has Highlands County's only levy, along Arbuckle Creek, which FEMA has certified, DeCerbo added, meaning the special district is not going to be considered to be in a flood hazard area.
Meanwhile, Tarokh said any immediate increases in flood insurance premiums are not connected to the new maps being finalized.
"According to engineers in our water resources bureau, since the floodplain maps haven't been adopted by FEMA, any increase in premiums would not be related to the new maps at all," she added.