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Plymouth County gets reprieve from federal flood maps

Thousands of coastal property owners facing hefty flood-insurance premiums have been given a temporary reprieve, with the news that new flood maps will not go into effect in Plymouth County for at least another year.

“Overnight, 2,000 people in Marshfield and Scituate alone will have the news that they don’t have to have flood insurance,” said state Representative Jim Cantwell, a Marshfield Democrat. “Everyone else will be able to save, because rates will be [closer to] what they were before. It’s tremendous news.”

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Officials in Plymouth County have been holding their breath to see if they would have to approve the new flood maps proposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The maps would have added thousands of homes to flood zones, requiring them to obtain flood insurance, and drastically increased premiums for homes that already had flood insurance.

A delay will put many of the changes on hold until communities can appeal the maps, a process that will probably take a year. Similar delays have been granted to Portland, Maine, and Brick, N.J., but this is the first in Massachusetts, Cantwell said.

“A delay is so important,” said US Representative William Keating, the Bourne Democrat who has helped lead the fight against the new maps. “Now we can make sure [the maps are] done right. Now we can look at other avenues where we can reduce the cost of that insurance.”

The new FEMA flood maps have been the source of debate since they were introduced to South Shore communities in 2013.

The maps were intended to model coastal flooding more accurately. Flood zones were expanded miles outward. At the shore, flood elevations were raised considerably, with some homes predicted to be under water in future storms.

The maps were coupled with a federal mandate known as the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which imposed steep insurance premiums for those in the new flood zones. Legislators said the mandate’s goal was to better reflect the cost of coastal flooding and to make the National Flood Insurance Program solvent.

The act raised flood premiums for coastal homeowners by thousands of dollars, and some residents who live miles inland suddenly needed costly flood insurance even though they had never experienced flooding.

The maps would add more than 1,300 homes to the flood plain in Marshfield, 500 in Scituate, and 100 in Duxbury.

Officials from all three towns have scrambled to respond, spending thousands for engineering studies to appeal.

Though the appeals are ongoing, a requirement for the county to approve the new maps or risk losing all help from the Flood Insurance Program was growing imminent.

Now, residents will not have to accept the maps at their upcoming town meetings and can wait until the appeal process concludes. Homeowners facing flood insurance costs for the first time will not see any such bills for the next year. Those already paying flood insurance may see an uptick in flood insurance rates because of Biggert-Waters, but increases will be significantly less.

The US Senate passed a bill this week that would provide longer-term relief from higher insurance premiums, but that legislation still requires approval by the House of Representatives and President Obama.

The announcement had many breathing a sigh of relief.

“I think it’s a good move,” René Read, Duxbury town manager, said. “It will give people more time to make a thoughtful decision down the road, rather than having this forced down our throats.”

“FEMA told us it won’t be an issue until 2015,” said Town Administrator Rocco Longo of Marshfield.

Though equally relieved, Patricia Vinchesi, Scituate town administrator, said the delay was expected. It would have been unfair to impose maps that the towns had shown were flawed, she said.

Questions about the science behind the maps were the primary reasons for the delay. Appeals submitted by towns have questioned how the maps were created, and an analysis by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, performed at the request of Keating, showed FEMA scientists had used wave models for a different ocean.

FEMA’s willingness to investigate those claims has officials optimistic. “It’s definitely a strong indication that Marshfield, Scituate, and Duxbury have done a very credible job to point out deficiencies in the maps that have been proposed, as well as Congressman Keating’s work,” Cantwell said. He added that he was confident there is enough evidence to show “FEMA that the maps have inaccuracies that have to be dealt with before they can take effect.”

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com.

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