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Buying LandOwning Land

Understanding Wetland and Flood Zones

September 9, 2022

In many areas of the country, and certainly in Florida, understanding wetland and Flood Zones is of the utmost importance when purchasing a property. However, I’ve found that these are often misunderstood and/or mistakenly used interchangeably. 


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a wetland as follows under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act:

“Wetlands are areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetland generally includes swamps, marshes, bogs, and similar areas.” Definition as used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The important thing to understand from this definition is that wetland is not limited to areas where you can visibly see water but rather a habitat or the “vegetation” that is supported or associated with the presence of water (whether visible or not visible). 


The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was created by Congress to help with insurance coverage against losses on the part of owners due to flooding. Communities that agree to adopt and enforce ordinances and regulations that meet or exceed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirements can then take advantage of the NFIP and flood insurance. Through its mapping program, FEMA develops Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) for every city and county in the United States that depict the flood risk or potential for flooding in each area. FEMA identifies flood hazard areas on the Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) and denotes them as Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA). Per FEMA an SFHA is:

“As the area that will be inundated by the flood event having a 1-percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year. The 1-percent annual chance flood is also referred to as the base flood or 100-year flood.”

SFHAs include several different zones (for example A, AO, AE, etc.) but all equate to a higher potential risk for flooding. 

Moderate flood hazard areas denote areas “between the limits of the base flood and the 0.2-percent-annual-chance (or 500-year) flood.” These zones are identified by FEMA on the FIRM as B, or X (shaded). 

Minimal flood hazard areas are “areas outside the SFHA and higher than the elevation of the 0.2-percent-annual-chance flood.” FEMA has identified these zones as on the FIRM as C or X (unshaded). 

The key point to remember with flood zones is that they don’t indicate that an area will or won’t flood but rather tells you what the risk of flooding has been determined to be based on previous historical floods. This information then gives you a reference as to what will be required with respect to inspections, engineering, building, insurance, and an overall planning cost for your intended use/projects on a property.

A few common misconceptions are as follows: 

You can’t build in a flood zone! 

This is not necessarily true. There are many instances where building can occur in SFHA flood zones. Typically building in Flood Zone A or V will entail a more arduous and costly approval and building process and more costly insurance but you can often build in flood zones that fall in the SFHA by building above the base flood elevation (BFE). 

Many desirable homesites lie near bodies of water and could be subject to flooding during a natural disaster. However, with additional permitting and adherence to increased engineering requirements, construction is often approved if the residence is built above the historic flood level height as per regulations. Examples of this are prevalent and easily visible along major rivers and coastlines where houses appear to be perched on stilts. 

If a property is dry, then there’s no wetland!                                                     

Unfortunately, just because a property doesn’t have any standing water doesn’t mean that wetland isn’t present on the land in question. In order to make a determination as to the presence of wetland or what area is actually wetland, an evaluation must be conducted and a Formal Wetland Delineation made. 

In Florida, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) has the responsibility to perform Formal Wetland Delineations. Often landowners or potential landowners will enlist the consulting services of environmental specialist companies to get assessments on the presence and/or delineation of wetland on a property prior to entering into a contract, during a due diligence period, or prior to initiating improvement projects.  

Flood Zone designations can’t be challenged!

Not true, it could be that your property has been incorrectly designated as being in a flood zone. There is a process to formally challenge and amend a flood zone designation. The process can be time-consuming but if you truly believe the designation is incorrect having it corrected could save you a significant amount of money and help you utilize the full potential of your property. 

Wetland offers a great opportunity to dig a pond! 

Taking advantage of an already wet area on your property would seem like a great idea but “improving” this area could get you into serious trouble with state and/or Federal agencies or your neighbors as well. This may have been something that was done quite often in years past, but I would advise that it be approached with caution and professional consultation now. Many landowners and prospective landowners make plans to improve their property whether for aesthetics or for agricultural purposes by creating a pond, but if done improperly or in the wrong location it could cost you dearly.

Wetland is useless and totally undesirable on a property!

All wetland is not created equal and as with many things, the devil is the details. Having a wetland on a property can be a great thing depending on the percentage, location, and amount of associated water or type of wetland. You might not like to have a property that is all wetland but the right percentage and location of wetland on a property might provide great natural habitat and add to its aesthetics and appeal. 

Additionally, depending on how the wetland is present on the property it may serve as a great natural boundary between neighboring properties, help to provide a sense of seclusion or present unique and special opportunities for income and recreation. The type of wetland also matters; ankle-deep water may not diminish certain types of hunting one bit while waist-deep water might be an entirely different matter. Also, some areas may be wet or hold surface water but only for short and infrequent periods of time, providing outstanding use for the majority of the time that they are dry. 

Flooding only occurs in the areas/zones that are designated as Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA)! 

Everyone should understand that flooding can happen anywhere. The information provided by FEMA in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is a useful tool for understanding the potential for flooding in a given area and working to develop mitigation planning. That being said, it is not absolute and doesn’t indicate that flooding will or won’t occur in an area.

Flooded streets of the neighborhood, drowned cars. Houston, Texas, US. Consequences of the Hurricane Harvey

Flood zones are always wetland areas and wetland areas are always flood zones!

Neither of these are true as every property is unique and different. SFHA flood zones may often occur outside areas of wetlands due to proximity to a body of water or a low elevation which may put the land at an increased risk for flooding. Wetlands can often be associated with an increased risk of flooding but not always, depending again on the topography of a property, proximity to a body of water, and other factors. 

Understanding wetland and flood zones is crucial for determining if a property will suit your plans and intended uses. It’s key to remember that the presence of wetland or the fact that the property may include areas in a higher-risk flood zone may not necessarily equate to an unusable or unsuitable property. 

About the Author
Caleb Risinger joined National Land Realty in 2019. Caleb served as a United States Naval Officer from 1999-2019. He earned his master’s degree from the Naval War College and his bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina Aiken. Now as a Land Professional, Caleb shows great dedication to his clients and attention to detail with respect to marketing a property. In his spare time, Caleb enjoys hunting with his English Pointer, fishing, and coaching/playing soccer. He is also passionate about his Christian faith. Caleb and his wife, Kristina, have five children. The family currently resides in Jacksonville, FL. View Caleb's Listings and Reviews on