By Robert Knox, Globe Correspondent
The state is urging property owners along the Massachusetts coast to elevate their homes 1 to 3 feet to protect against storms and the threat that rising seas will bring the waters to their doorsteps.
It's just a recommendation - not a requirement - but the message being delivered by the new StormSmart Coasts program is a sign that many municipal and state officials are concerned about the risk global warming may bring to property owners along the 1,700-mile Massachusetts coastline.
"It's scary," said Vincent J. Kalishes III, Scituate's conservation agent, who took part in planning the StormSmart Coasts program and attended a workshop in Norwell earlier this month.
By elevating their house levels, the state says, homeowners can save money on flood insurance whether or not flood water ever licks at their doors.
According to the state, each foot of added height to a home built in the floodplain - it's called adding "freeboard" - would add 0.25 to 1.5 percent to the total construction cost. But the added construction cost would be more than offset by decreased flood insurance payments, according to figures provided by the StormSmart Coasts program.
For a $250,000 home, if the added cost was figured at 0.4 percent, it would cost $1,000 for each additional foot. In the example provided by the state program, if an owner added 3 feet of elevation above the minimum legal standard, the owner would save $285 a month in flood insurance. That savings would outweigh the slight increase in mortgage payments for the added construction cost, the state contends.
Andrea Cooper, the state's coordinator for Shoreline and Floodplain Management, warned that the flood insurance rate maps used by many coastal homeowners may be misleading. Storm waters "can and do" rise higher than shown on the maps, she said.
Anne Herbst, Hull's conservation administrator who attended the session, said her town has analyzed tide and wave heights in recent storms. "With each increasing foot, we see increasingly severe damage. Storms today that cause minor damage will cause major damage in the future," she said.
Duxbury is struggling already with storm damage and local flooding, said Joe Grady, the town's conservation administrator. He shares the state's urgency regarding coastal vulnerability. "If the predictions are correct and the sea level is going to rise and the storms are going to get more potent, then we all need to get much better at what we're doing."
StormSmart Coasts was created after a two-year study to help coastal communities plan for, manage, and mitigate the problems rising seas are causing now and will make worse. It recently created a website, www.mass.gov/czm/stormsmart/, which offers information and technical tools towns and cities can use for planning and regulations. State officials have noted that two local communities have taken important steps to protect coastal property.
In Quincy, where the flood plain includes more than 4,400 buildings and flood damage is common, the city has used federal money to pay for the elevation of utilities and appliances from ground floors. The federal government, which subsidizes flood insurance, prefers spending money on prevention rather than claims. The program funds the relocations of water heaters and circuit boxes to upper floors. When upper-floor space is not available, city workers find other solutions, including small additions to hold elevated utilities.
Scituate has the most vulnerable coastline in the region south of Boston; 500 properties have sustained at least two incidents of serious storm damage - more than any other community in the state.
Two years ago, the town sent letters to the owners of the repetitive-loss properties to inform them that funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency pays up to 75 percent of the costs of elevation projects - up to $40,000. Fifty homes have been elevated. But not everyone understands the need for such action. Given how many newcomers have arrived in the area during the last decade, Kalishes said, "half the residents have never experienced a major storm."
"Here in Marshfield, we've certainly seen the effects of coastal storms and the damage they've caused," said Jay Wennemer, Marshfield's conservation agent.
Robert Knox can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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