Last year, when the owners of Haddad’s Ocean Café in Marshfield tore down their old building and rebuilt it to the tune of $3 million, they elevated the new restaurant to reduce their flood risk and insurance premiums. The advantage may have been short-lived.
Recently released federal flood maps have redrawn the lines, adding thousands of residential and commercial properties in the south suburbs to high-risk flood zones. The change will force anyone in an area with a 1 percent annual chance of flooding — also called a 100-year flood zone or Special Flood Hazard Area — to purchase flood insurance if they have a mortgage. Others who already buy flood insurance could see themselves moved from a moderate-risk zone to a high-risk zone and pay more for insurance.
The new maps come just as rates for subsidized federal flood insurance are leaping upward — in some cases, by 25 percent a year until they reflect the true actuarial risk — as the result of a law passed in 2012 to stabilize the finances of the National Flood Insurance Program.
The maps show about 500 homes in Scituate have been added to the flood zone, according to Selectman Anthony Vegnani. In Marshfield, about 3 square miles have been added, including 1.6 square miles to the “velocity” zone, where property could be damaged by wave action as well as standing water, according to Town Planner Paul Halkiotis.
Moreover — and “this is the kicker,” Halkiotis said — the maps must be incorporated into town zoning, and if a two-thirds majority at Town Meeting in April does not approve the change , residents will have to buy market-rate flood insurance at an “astronomical” cost instead of participating in the National Flood Insurance Program, he said.
Maps are being released on a rolling basis; right now, several south communities are within the 90-day appeal period when property owners can make their case to be excluded from the flood zones. Some appeal deadlines fall in mid-October, and officials are warning that a successful appeal will be difficult. Even if a property has never flooded, an appeal requires a professional engineer to verify its elevation, officials said.
If the technical information in an appeal is solid, it may be incorporated into a map amendment that places land outside a flood zone, according to Richard Verville, chief of hazard mitigation assistance for the New England office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA looks at every appeal and every comment it receives, he said.
Verville said some flood maps have not been redone since the 1980s, and the new maps use better land-contour data. They also reflect a recent spate of high-damage storms, including superstorm Sandy last fall.
“We’re looking at a whole area in time, [and] what’s happening in the area, and those storms have been taken into consideration,” he said. A congressional mandate required that coastal studies be reassessed by the end of 2013, he said.
Nationally, flood insurance claims total billions of dollars a year — true even before Sandy. According to www.floodsmart.gov, the website of the National Flood Insurance Program, annual claims averaged $2.9 billion from 2002 to 2011. The average policy costs about $625 per year, and the average paid claim, over the five-year period ending in 2011, was more than $35,000.
Verville said FEMA has allocated funds to conduct two public information sessions in Plymouth County, but the meetings have not been scheduled.
In Duxbury, the appeal period ends Oct. 17. Planning director Thomas Broadrick said the town has not seen drastic changes with the new maps; he is more concerned about sea-level rise.
Still, Duxbury plans to hold two workshops in late August or early September, without a FEMA representative, for residents to view the changes and ask questions. The town may also participate in a regional meeting, he said.
Vegnani said Scituate explored whether the Board of Selectmen could appeal on behalf of residents en masse, and the answer was no. The idea that many residents will hire an engineer by the deadline, he said, is unrealistic. “The time frame is so short,” he said.
Scituate is working with Marshfield to try to schedule a meeting with FEMA, he said.
Not all of the affected homes are in oceanfront areas. Some are in low-lying spots near rivers, lakes, and ponds. State Representative James Cantwell, a Democrat who represents Marshfield and Scituate, said Marshfield’s Kent Park neighborhood, across from the police station on Route 139, is now in a flood zone because it backs up to a marsh connected to the South River.
He called the changes “unfair” and said the cost would be overly burdensome for both residents and businesses.
“It is probably the greatest threat to our future economic development, the greatest threat to property values,” he said. Property owners may be reluctant to make improvements, he said, because a mortgage of even $1 would trigger a requirement for flood insurance. Owners may even find flood insurance will cost more than their property taxes, he said.
“It looks like FEMA is trying, overnight, to recoup some losses from other regions of the country,” he said.
The Marshfield Board of Selectmen issued a statement in which it alerted residents to the changes and offered some hope: Those who already hold flood insurance for lower-risk areas, and have been moved to a high-risk category, may be able to keep the same premiums through grandfathering.
Marshfield Town Administrator Rocco Longo said another strategy, elevating a building, could prove cost-effective.
If the insurance premium for a home that stands at 4 feet below base flood elevation is $9,500 per year, he said, insurance for the same home raised to 3 feet above flood elevation could cost as little as $427 per year.
At Haddad’s Ocean Café, the maps could mean the new building’s higher elevation is no longer high enough.
Restaurant co-owner Chuck Haddad said his understanding is that if elevation standards are raised for his property, his flood insurance premium could go from about $6,300 a year to $25,000 or $30,000.