SARANAC LAKE - Unless the federal government agrees to revise the designated flood zone around Lake Flower, a Malone developer's plan for a 90-room hotel on the lake's shoreline, at least as it's proposed now, could be sunk.
Lake Flower Lodging, a company formed by Chris LaBarge, wants to build a four-story, 60-foot-tall, high-end hotel on the site of three existing Lake Flower Avenue motels: the Lake Flower Inn, Lake Side Motel and Adirondack Motel. LaBarge has said the $15 million to $18 million project would be "an icon that will define" Saranac Lake, although some residents have said it's too big for the site.
Last fall, the project won $2 million in state economic development funding and in December received preliminary approval for a zoning change from the village Board of Trustees.
Since then, however, work on the project has slowed to a halt. LaBarge and the village are awaiting a decision from the Federal Emergency Management Agency about whether it will agree to revise the map of the Lake Flower and Saranac River flood zone. Even if FEMA says yes, LaBarge has to decide if he'll pay for the new study, the cost of which would be significant because it would have to take in the whole lakeshore, not just the properties where the hotel would be built.
The issue is that the three motels are located within the Lake Flower regulatory flood way or flood zone, as designated in a 1980s FEMA flood insurance study of Lake Flower and the Saranac River. The study was last revised in 1992.
"There's basically an area that is determined by a contour line, an elevation, that is considered the flood area for Lake Flower," said Joe Garso of Saranac Lake-based North Woods Engineering, one of LaBarge's consultants on the hotel project. "In the event of a 100-year flood, they calculated that the water elevation would be 1,534.1 feet. That elevation, anything at that contour or closer to the lake, is considered flood area."
Garso said communities with a designated flood way had to enact local laws saying they wouldn't allow any new development in these areas without getting a permit that says the project will not affect downstream properties. The village enacted its local law around 1990.
"The law says you can't make flooding worse anywhere else by what you're doing in the flood way," said village Community Development Director Jeremy Evans. The village is the FEMA-designated administrator of the Lake Flower and Saranac River flood zone. "It really limits development."
Since the village's law was enacted, however, it appears to have largely been ignored or forgotten. Some new development has occurred over the years in the local flood zone, but the only instance Garso could recall where a permit was issued came last year.
"The one for the Harrietstown retaining wall project (behind the town hall) was the first flood development permit ever issued in the village of Saranac Lake," Garso said. "The simple way to say it is those laws really weren't enforced."
"It could have been oversight," Evans said. "It could have been people just doing it without seeking a permit. In the overall scheme of things, where development seems to happen in the village, there hasn't been that much along the lake."
What does all this mean for the Lake Flower hotel project? Simply put, unless the flood map is changed, there's no way the proposed hotel could be built on the site of the three motels.
"Let's just say if they wanted to keep the motels just the way they were, they could do that," Garso said. "That's not new development. But because (the proposed hotel) is a new footprint, a new development, the law kicks in."
Evans said the chance of LaBarge getting a permit, unless the map is changed, is "unlikely." Evans is the one who'd have to make that call as the village's flood plan administrator.
"What he's proposed would be altering the flood capacity of the lake, and it's going to affect somebody else (downstream)," Evans said.
Changing the map
LaBarge and Garso have been pushing to have the flood study revised. Garso said there's good reason for it to be changed. He said it's flawed.
Even though it was revised in 1992, Garso said the study didn't take into account the fact that the village installed two new flood gates in the Lake Flower Dam in 1987. Those gates increased the capacity for the dam to let out more water, which means the elevation of the flood zone should be lower, Garso said.
"I've gone through some preliminary calculations, and just installing the flood gates would lower the flood elevation between a foot and a half and two feet," he said. If that happened, "approximately half of the property would then be out of the flood zone."
Garso said the study only takes into account the storage capacity of Lake Flower inside the village. It doesn't factor in Oseetah Lake and Kiwassa Lake, which are connected to Lake Flower, nor does it mention that the state can control the water coming into those lakes at its Lower Locks, all of which "could help to attenuate a flood," Garso said.
Evans agreed that the study is flawed.
"When you look at the map and you compare it to the realities on the ground in 2011, when we had significant flooding, they don't align, especially in that area," he said. "Obviously the village would like to enforce something closer to reality."
A lower flood elevation for Lake Flower wouldn't just benefit the hotel project, Garso noted.
"It would be changed for everyone," he said. "If you're in Cranberry Court or on Riverside Drive, everyone would have the benefit of this. The benefit would be lower flood insurance or no flood insurance. If you're out of a flood zone, then you wouldn't have to pay flood insurance anymore."
The federal government requires property owners undertaking new construction in a flood zone to have flood insurance; older buildings are grandfathered in and rarely buy flood insurance because it's so expensive. The federal government provides subsidized flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program, but the program is billions of dollars in debt and annual premium increases are slated to rise dramatically in the next few years.
It's unclear if FEMA will agree to change the map. The village hasn't made a formal request for the agency do so. Evans said he has talked about it informally with FEMA and state Department of Environmental Conservation representatives and it "sounds favorable, but it's a matter of putting together the application and showing the evidence."
"The bottom line is, this is a problem all over the state and the country, and FEMA and DEC are very much aware of it," Evans said. "They've been working hard at trying to get updated maps, and that need has only heightened over the last few years as these incredible storms have come through. They have a schedule for trying to update maps, but when you think of those things that have happened and some of the population centers that have been affected, we're way down on the list."
Garso said he would do the new study and LaBarge would fund it. Garso wouldn't say how much it would cost, but he said it's "not inexpensive." The developer is reportedly mulling it over.
"The decision on whether or not to go forward is with Chris LaBarge and the development team," Garso said.
LaBarge didn't immediately return a telephone message Friday.
Meanwhile, work on other aspects of the hotel plan appears to be at a standstill. Garso said he isn't doing anything else for LaBarge right now.
"Nothing," he said. "This is something that's got to be addressed."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.