A reprieve could be on the way for property owners facing higher flood insurance premiums after legislation was introduced in Congress to delay premium increases for many home and business owners affected by a 2012 law that sought to stabilize the finances of the National Flood Insurance Program.
Another stay of execution could be on the horizon, too: Local communities are starting to receive word from the Federal Emergency Management Agency about appeals they filed challenging new flood maps. The maps raise the predicted level of a 100-year flood, sweeping thousands of new properties into high-risk flood zones and forcing many owners to buy flood insurance for the first time.
On Monday, the town of Marshfield received letters from FEMA in which the agency ruled that two map appeals the town submitted meet the scientific criteria for consideration. FEMA had not yet judged the content of the appeals, but it said that while the appeals are pending, processing of Marshfield’s flood insurance rate map will be delayed.
The million-dollar question, said Town Administrator Rocco Longo, is what the map delay means for property owners. Does it negate the mandate to buy insurance? Late last week, town officials were still looking for an answer.
The separate delay proposed in both houses of Congress on Oct. 29 — the delay of premium increases — would last approximately four years. It would apply to homes and businesses built to code and later mapped into a higher-risk area (often called “grandfathered”). According to a member of the staff at the House Committee on Financial Services, where the House bill was referred, the delay also applies to older primary residences built prior to the release of flood insurance rate maps, but sources differed on their interpretation of the passage. If it applies to those homes built before the flood insurance rate maps, existing subsidies that reduce premiums for those older primary residences would remain intact during the delay.
The bill would also stop the sale of a home or business after July 6, 2012, from triggering a rate increase; rates that have increased in the interim due to a sale would revert back to their previous levels, according to the House Committee on Financial Services staff member.
Owners who purchased a new policy after that date, before they were legally required to buy it, would also be protected by the delay.
South Shore residents said they were pleased to see movement in Congress but wished the bill would do more.
“Overall we’re happy, but we’re not completely satisfied by what we see in this,” said Joe Rossi, chairman of the Marshfield Citizens Coastal Coalition, a group advocating for a change in the 2012 law.
The bill does not delay increases for second homes in the older, so-called “pre-flood insurance rate map” category. Vacation homes built before the advent of flood insurance rate maps — which for Marshfield was Oct. 14, 1977, Rossi said — would not be able to continue receiving subsidies under the legislation. Nor would subsidies go to properties that have suffered repeated flood damage — so-called “severe repetitive loss” properties.
Businesses in the pre-flood insurance rate map category would not continue receiving subsidies, but businesses in the grandfathered category would see their premium increases delayed, the congressional staffer said.
Dates when the maps first took effect on the South Shore vary by community. According to Rossi, they were generally between 1975 and 1977.
Marshfield homeowner Laurie Futch said she has mixed feelings about the bill because it does nothing to help with higher flood projections.
“The whole thing needs to be scratched and done over,” she said.
Passage of the bill is far from certain; Rossi said it has not yet garnered enough support from House Republicans.
But South Shore US Representative William Keating, a Democrat, cautioned against making that judgment too soon.
“I don’t think that we’re at that stage,” he said, adding that legislation that comes to the House from the Senate has a better chance of passage, and that he is talking with senators about attaching the bill to other legislation making its way through Congress.
Keating said cosponsors of the bill have been building a coalition among members whose districts are affected by various types of flooding — from major rivers and the Great Lakes as well as coastal areas, he said.
“More and more members are realizing they’re affected,” he said.
US Representative Stephen Lynch, a Democrat whose district includes the northern part of the South Shore, held a public forum on the legislation Wednesday at Hingham Town Hall.
Dubbed the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2013 (No. 1610 in the Senate, 3370 in the House), the bill prohibits rate increases until six months after a list of requirements are met: FEMA must complete the affordability study mandated in the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, propose a draft “affordability framework” to Congress, and receive authority from Congress for the regulations to become final.
In addition, FEMA must certify in writing to Congress that the agency has used sound scientific and engineering practices to determine varying levels of risk in the mapped areas.
Cosponsors of the bill said the requirements amount to a delay of about four years.
Flood maps are available at www.msc.fema.gov. Users can view a tutorial by clicking on “General Information for all Products and Tools,” then “FIRMette – Online,” and finally the link to the tutorial. High-risk flood areas have an “A” or “V” in the zone designation.
Some communities have map links on their websites. In Marshfield, residents can go to the Planning Department page and click on “Draft Flood Rate Maps.” Scroll to the bottom for map numbers. Click on “Index Map” to find your map number.
Residents can also do a Web search for “Changing Risks, Changing Rates” to view a recent FEMA brochure on the issue.