New Brunswick may take firmer approach on flood relief, Higgs says

The New Brunswick government may have to take an even firmer approach to encouraging people to relocate their homes outside flood zones, Premier Blaine Higgs said as water levels from the St. John River in the Fredericton area surpassed last year’s.

Higgs said with the government likely to face requests for disaster relief for the second year in a row, he wants to examine whether mechanisms such as building permits can help persuade people to abandon flood-prone areas.

“I think we’ve got to look seriously at the impacts we’re seeing with changing weather conditions and how we evaluate building sites, and how we encourage people to actually relocate,” he said Tuesday.

“Are these safe places to build anymore?”

The province has been turning down some people who want to build or rebuild in such areas since last summer.

Last year, under the previous Liberal government, the provincial Environment Department began refusing to issue watercourse and wetland alteration permits for construction if the builders couldn’t show the properties would withstand future flooding.

The permits are required for any construction within 30 metres of a watercourse or wetland.

Since the change was announced last May, the department has rejected 11 applications for the permits on those grounds, according to spokesperson Erika Jutras.

Mill Cove resident Elaine Price said she and her husband had to show proof of flood mitigation when they applied for a WAWA permit to rebuild their home, which was damaged by the 2018 flood.

She said she agreed with the requirement.

“I think it’s very smart, with climate change,” she said. “Things have certainly changed.”

The goal of the policy change was to reduce the number of properties damaged over and over by floods in the future —and the amount of money governments might have to repeatedly spend on compensation to the same owners.

In some cases, owners might have to commit to moving or raising a home or cottage before getting WAWA permits. Before the change, owners were allowed to repair flood-damaged properties back to pre-flood conditions.

Jutras said the province has received 552 WAWA permit applications since last May’s policy change. Of those, 508 were approved. The 11 rejections were because of a lack of flood mitigation measures.

“Our department worked closely with applicants to ensure that projects were redesigned to avoid and minimize development within a known flood zone,” Jutras said.

Some of the remaining 33 applications are on hold and some are no longer required “as the applicant revised [the] project to be outside of 30 metres of a watercourse or wetland.”

The Prices built their home on Grand Lake in 2002 and in what she calls a “normal” year, water would come up to only halfway between the shore and the house.

But they were flooded in 2008 and again in 2018, so last year decided to lift their home off its concrete slab and add a foundation.

Higgs said Tuesday that in some areas, mitigation would work, but in others, “you can say there’s nothing you’re going to do here in this location that won’t cause it to be a complete island in the event of severe flooding conditions.”

He said he was not “making policy on the fly in any way, shape or form,” but government would need to look at “making a decision or helping people make a decision” about whether to rebuild in a flood zone.

Last year, the Liberal government agreed to pay up to $6,100 for repairs to cottages and other recreational properties, which are not normally eligible for compensation.

Liberal officials argued the new, more stringent requirement for permits would ensure the 2018 payments did not create a precedent.

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