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Marshfield

Coastal towns file flood zone appeals

Consulting engineers believe they have found errors in the new federal flood maps of Marshfield, one of which was “so obvious,” according to a press release issued by the Board of Selectmen, that the town hoped notifying the Federal Emergency Management Agency would eliminate the need to appeal, but to no avail.

Marshfield joined Duxbury and Scituate on Wednesday in filing appeals with FEMA, hoping to soften the blow of new flood maps that could force thousands of home and business owners to buy flood insurance or pay more for existing policies.

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Marshfield and Scituate also filed previous appeals. They worked with two consulting companies to review how FEMA calculated the base flood elevation, which is the level at which the annual chance of flooding is 1 percent or higher, also known as the 100-year flood level.

Marshfield’s first two appeals, hand-delivered to the local FEMA office on Tuesday, contend that the model used by FEMA consultants overstates the base flood elevation along two lines of measurement, called transects, in the southern part of town. If successful, the appeal would lower the base flood elevation by 2 feet in that area, reducing the flood zone size.

The company involved in preparing those appeals, Ransom Consulting Engineers and Scientists, successfully argued the same position in Maine in 2010, according to the selectmen.

The town’s third appeal, hand-delivered Wednesday, relies on analysis by the Woods Hole Group to assert that FEMA did not make necessary adjustments to “stillwater” levels in a flood insurance study upon which the maps were based. Making those adjustments would reduce base flood elevation by eight-tenths of a foot, according to the selectmen.

FEMA uses the term “stillwater” to refer to the level of sea water, including storm surge from low atmospheric pressure, but not including the height of wind-driven waves.

‘The mapping is becoming more realistic. Today they know exactly what those elevations are.’

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The selectmen called the stillwater error “indisputable,” saying it is “so obvious that the town’s consultants attempted to communicate their findings to FEMA consultants in advance of the appeal deadlines with the hope that the error could be acknowledged and used to correct the [base flood elevations] and maps without the necessity of an appeal.”

Unless the towns prevail, a substantial portion of homeowners and commercial property owners added to the 100-year flood zone will have to buy flood insurance or pay higher premiums. Those without a mortgage are not required to carry the insurance.

The latest estimate from Marshfield is that 1,300 homes and 95 commercial properties will be added to the flood zone. Scituate has estimated the number of affected homes at 500.

In Duxbury, planning director Thomas Broadrick said the town was initially informed by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency that only eight new properties would be included in the high-risk flood zone. But residents, he said, believe that some 100 properties may be affected by changes in the elevation mapping.

Higher predicted flood levels in relation to a building’s elevation generally raise the insurance premium.

Broadrick said 4,000 new properties are being added to the flood zone in Dennis, where he lives, and he understands the plight of property owners. He also believes, however, that today’s science is better at determining elevation. Modern lidar, a radar-like technology that uses laser light instead of microwaves, has been used to make the maps.

“In my opinion, the mapping is becoming more realistic,” he said. “Today they know exactly what those elevations are.”

In addition to the appeals, Marshfield also sent FEMA elevation and engineering data collected by individual residents and the Marshfield Citizens Coastal Coalition, a local organization that has been helping residents respond to the situation.

Although the towns are challenging certain aspects of the maps, property owners are ultimately responsible for their own appeals, which require professional analysis of elevation by a surveyor or engineer.

Marshfield Selectman John Hall said he understands why the maps need to be updated, but he does not want the changes to hurt residents or the local economy. One restaurant in the Brant Rock neighborhood, Haddad’s Ocean Café, razed its old building last year and built a new one, elevated higher to conform to flood standards, for about $3 million. With predicted flood levels higher, co-owner Chuck Haddad said he fears his flood insurance premium could go from $6,300 a year to $25,000 or $30,000, he said in August.

Hall said residents of Landing Road, in the Green Harbor neighborhood, have come to him in tears saying they cannot afford the premiums.

“Basically everybody on Landing Road is thinking about selling their home,” he said.

Selling may not be easy. In a letter to FEMA Oct. 10, the National Association of Realtors said that with drastic increases in premiums, property values are dropping and real estate markets are stalling. The association called on FEMA to delay premium increases until an affordability study, mandated in the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, has been done. The group also asked FEMA to convene a summit to discuss the issue.

Joe Ventrone, vice president of regulatory affairs for the association, said that the maps are having a similar effect in other regions, and that they are being challenged in states such as California, Colorado, and Iowa.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has said FEMA should consider steps communities have taken to prevent flooding, such as installing berms, and revise the maps. On Wednesday, she and Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat from Winthrop, introduced legislation that would prohibit lenders from forcing homeowners to buy flood insurance for more than their outstanding mortgage balance. Her office said the move should reduce premiums for some homeowners by linking policies to the mortgage instead of the home’s replacement value.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.
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