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Residents may face increases in flood insurance costs

The Concord River flows over its banks near Old North Bridge in Concord.

John Bohn/Globe Staff

The Concord River flows over its banks near Old North Bridge in Concord.

Upcoming changes to the federal flood insurance program could have a significant impact on some homeowners and businesses in river communities such as Ashland, Concord, Holliston and Natick.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is updating flood plain maps nationwide, which means some property owners along the coast and rivers may be required to purchase flood insurance for the first time. Meanwhile, the federal government is also phasing out subsidies, which means the cost of purchasing insurance could be crippling for some property owners, said one state senator.

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“Some of the communities will be dramatically hard hit and I don’t think the residents will know about it until they get a letter,’’ said state Senator Karen Spilka, a Democrat from Ashland. “People don’t know this is coming down and I think some of the costs could be exorbitant.’’

In July 2012, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which calls on FEMA to make a number of changes to the national insurance program.

According to FEMA, key provisions of the legislation will require the program to raise rates to reflect true flood risks, make the program more financially stable, and change how updates to the flood insurance rate map affect policyholders. The changes will mean rate increases for some policyholders over time. FEMA is encouraging the owners of homes and businesses near waterways to learn their flood risk and talk to their insurance agent to determine whether their policy will be affected.

In her district alone, Spilka said, there are 345 parcels that would have their status changed under the preliminary maps and would face higher premiums. Of those, 30 properties are in Ashland, 219 in Framingham, 16 in Franklin, 50 in Holliston, two in Hopkinton, 19 in Medway, and nine in Natick.

Spilka said residents and business owners need more time to understand the changes, so she is calling on the state’s congressional delegation to support a delay in the law’s implementation.

“We need to better understand the impact,’’ Spilka said. “Families are still struggling. Times are still hard. To lay this on top of struggling families is absolutely not fair, and we need to help them out. We can’t let this happen to them. Thousands of dollars for flood insurance, when they didn’t have it before, could really cripple families.’’

US Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat who represents several river communities including Concord, Groton, and Sudbury, has heard from concerned residents on the issue and is supporting an effort to delay the implementation and funding of the new FEMA maps.

Tsongas added her signature to a letter sent last month to House leadership urging action to help maintain affordable flood insurance, according to her spokesman, Michael Hartigan.

“As a member of the Natural Resources Committee, and with several major rivers and waterways crisscrossing the Third District, Congresswoman Tsongas has long been an advocate for not only preserving these natural resources but also supporting those who live and work around them,’’ Hartigan said.

Marcia Rasmussen, director of Concord’s Department of Planning and Land Management, said the town has identified 350 property owners who may be affected by the changes, but most are not expected to face serious complications.

Rasmussen said the town has held hearings to update residents about the changes, and made the maps available online for review so they aren’t caught off guard.

“What is particularly daunting for these property owners is the increase in the cost of flood insurance because it won’t be as heavily subsidized,’’ Rasmussen said.

Stuart Johnstone, who lives on Pine Street in Concord, said the process is confusing. Johnstone said he has had flood insurance on the property in the past but canceled it a few years later when a survey showed he wasn’t in the flood plain. Now, the new map shows his property is closer than ever.

“It’s difficult to know what’s real and what’s not,’’ Johnstone said. “The net effect is I don’t really know how it will change things for us.’’

Spilka said one of the things that concerns her the most is that many residents aren’t yet aware of the changes.

“I have heard from some property owners, but because it isn’t fully implemented, most haven’t gotten notices yet,’’ Spilka said.

While some communities, like Concord, have alerted residents about potential changes, others don’t have the resources to do so.

Matthew Selby, Ashland’s conservation agent, said he hasn’t had a chance to review the changes, so residents have not been notified. Before they take effect, however, Town Meeting will have to approve them.

Linda Hansen, the conservation agent for Maynard, said she doesn’t think many parcels will be impacted by the changes, but urges residents to review the maps before they are finalized. She said residents can view the maps on the FEMA website or in her office at Town Hall.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@ yahoo.com.
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