Flood zone study moves forward

SARANAC LAKE – After several months during which there seemed to be little movement on a proposed 90-room hotel planned for the Lake Flower shoreline, the project is starting to stir again.

Developer Chris LaBarge of Malone has decided to go forward with a revised study of the lake’s flood zone and submit it to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to Joe Garso of Saranac Lake-based North Woods Engineering, the company that’s been hired to do the work.

“We’re working on creating a submission that would go to FEMA with a letter of map revision,” Garso said Wednesday. “I would think we’re looking at an initial submission to FEMA probably within the next two weeks.”

Work on the hotel project appeared to grind to a halt for several months as LaBarge weighed whether or not to proceed with the costly study. Without it, his plan for a $15 million to $18 million upscale, four-story hotel on the site of three Lake Flower Avenue motels would be dead in the water.

The three motels – the Lake Flower Inn, the Adirondack Motel and the Lakeside Motel – 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.

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, but it’s rarely been an issue, until now.

Unless the flood map is changed, village officials have said there’s no way the proposed hotel could be built on the site of the three motels because the project would alter the flood capacity of the lake and affect downstream property owners.

Garso and LaBarge have argued that the flood study should be revised because it’s flawed. The most recent update 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 told the Enterprise in March. He also 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, upstream, which are connected to Lake Flower and could help to attenuate a flood.

Village Community Development Director Jeremy Evans confirmed that LaBarge has decided to go ahead with revising the flood map.

“It’s really an elephant in the room that has to be addressed,” Evans said.

Garso said his company is working to revise an outdated computer model of the flood zone.

“There’s updated software were using,” he said. “We’ve inputed the data from the old study, but we’ve generated additional data to really flesh the model out to include Oseetah and Kiwassa in the flood study.”

The new model will also factor in the floodgates that were added to the dam, which Garso called “a critical feature” of the study.

Even if the study is done, how certain is LaBarge that FEMA will agree to revise the map? Both Garso and Evans said the developer wouldn’t have gone forward with it if he didn’t have some sense that the changes could be approved.

“They get these all the time,” Garso said. “This is a normal process, not just for this flood study but any flood study done 25 years ago or more was done with limited data and limited computer models at the time. As new information is available or updated study techniques have been developed, this is something they will routinely look at and grant a revision, provided the data supports that.”

Once the revised study and map revision request are submitted, Garso said he expects it will take FEMA one to two months to make a decision.

If the flood zone in Lake Flower is lowered, it could benefit other lakefront property owners who could see lower flood insurance rates or no longer need flood insurance.

In the meantime, work on other aspects of the project appears to have restarted.

“There was a long time with almost no communication, and we’ve started to have those communications again,” Evans said.

In December, the proposed hotel received preliminary approval for a zoning change from the village Board of Trustees, allowing the company to move into the final application stage. Evans said his recent discussions with LaBarge have been focused around a memo the planning board issued to the village board before it approved the project’s sketch plan. Among other things, the memo raised concerns about the potential visual impacts of the 300-foot-long, 59-foot-6-inch-tall building; traffic and pedestrian safety issues; and whether the project meets the open space requirements of the village’s Planned Unit Development District law.

“We’ve started to have discussions about some of the finer points in the memo,” Evans said.

LaBarge, in response to a Wednesday email from the Enterprise, said he would be traveling for the next week and couldn’t provide an update on the project’s status until he returned, but he said “Many things (will be) coming together next week.”

Although North Woods Engineering isn’t doing anything for LaBarge other than the flood zone study, Garso said, “I do know there is work being done on the architectural side of the building, and I think that probably will be fairly well received.”

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.