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Hingham pushes back against flood map expansion, insurance increases

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  September 16, 2013 05:20 PM

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Hingham resident Otto Harling didn’t know much about the updated FEMA flood maps until he got a letter from the bank.

Soon thereafter, he realized his house had been placed inside newly redrawn flood zones, and the insurance costs to go along with it would be a staggering $50,000 annually.

"Everyone has been blindsided," the Otis Street resident said. "I don’t think anyone had any idea what was going to happen. And these notices came from the bank. Even now most people don’t understand how bad it will be for them financially."

Harling's house, along with about 50 other homes in his neighborhood and hundreds more in Hingham as a whole, were included for the first time in the flood plain in maps updated by the Federal Emergency Management Association last year.

Prior to the new maps, only eight houses in Harling’s neighborhood were in the flood zone, and subsequently required insurance.

The expanded flood plain, reflecting the one percent annual risk of a flood, was only part of the problem.

Since the new maps were passed and enacted in the South Shore suburb, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, changing how the National Flood Insurance Program is run.

Within the program, insurance rates have been increased dramatically, both to reflect what FEMA has deemed the appropriate risk, and to make the program more financially stable.

Those rates will hit existing flood plain homeowners in 20-25 percent increases over the next several years. For Harling and others new to the flood plain, the changes will mean dramatic insurance rates the homes have never before paid.

“Personally, if you’re in a high hazard zone, you should pay commensurate insurance. But if you’re paying $50,000 for a 1 percent risk, and it’s for coverage of $250,000 max, that doesn’t make sense to me,” Harling said, who noted his home was 60 feet from the protected and often docile Hingham Harbor.

Harling, a retired MIT engineering professor, and others have banded together to hire an engineering firm intent on questioning the science behind the revised maps, trying to bring some reprieve to an issue that could kick many homeowners from their residences.

The issue is not a new one for the South Shore. Scituate, Marshfield, and Duxbury have been struggling with similar issues as the newly proposed maps make their way to Town Meeting for approval in those towns.

Yet unlike the others, Hingham residents said they were unsure what the impact of the new flood maps would be at the time they were passed. The problem has many town officials backing resident objections.

“It is likely that people underestimated the financial impact that they now see with the new rates that are out. Those impacts are significant, and we have an obligation to wade into this and helping our residents address their concerns,” said Town Administrator Ted Alexiades.

Alexiades said officials planned to meet with the Otis Street residents to go over the issues, and would begin to verify all the data the federal government was using to ensure all the base numbers are at least accurate.

From there, the town may look at questioning the calculations and projections used to derive the new maps.

Alexiades said that Hingham officials also need to understand the appeal process. Unlike several other South Shore towns, Hingham is far beyond the 90-day review period and the town has already adopted the maps.

“No one is saying people shouldn’t pay their fair share. We want to make sure people aren’t paying more, especially if it’s impacting people’s ability to pay their homes,” Alexiades said.

Harling said he is glad the town is assisting in the headache, especially since the higher insurance premiums could ultimately impact the town’s finances.

“We will sell or forget about our property values in the town, [they] are going to go plunging down,” Harling said. “That’s why the town should be very interested. The tax is going to have to be made up. I can imagine many people asking for abatements to assessed value. Indeed their houses are worth less.”

To read more about this issue, click here.

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