Scituate and Marshfield officials may be concerned about new flood maps and drastically higher flood-insurance premiums, but US Senator Elizabeth Warren said solutions are in sight.
At a public meeting with local officials and residents Tuesday, Warren spoke optimistically about the flood insurance issues, posing solutions to problematic new maps and higher insurance premiums that towns have been frantically trying to appeal.
"This is really about protecting homeowners,” Warren said.
Warren told the room that the Senate will take a vote on a bill early next week to place a four-year delay on the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, a federal mandate that has drastically raised flood-insurance rates.
The bill also would limit annual increases in flood insurance rates, require an affordability study to be performed on the program, and reimburse residents that successfully contest their map changes.
“We can’t do this to people,” Warren told the packed room at Marshfield’s Ventress Memorial Library. “You have to make sure you have the right science, [that you have an] affordability study, and you have to have a way to challenge the flood maps, so if they aren’t right, you aren’t out of pocket a lot of money.”
Local officials have been scurrying for months to deal with the Biggert-Waters Reform, which changed how the National Flood Insurance Program is run.
Rates are considerably higher under the new program, to make the program solvent as well as to charge a higher rate for properties the Federal Emergency Management Agency have deemed to be a higher risk.
For many towns, the reform has been coupled with new FEMA flood maps that substantially expanded the flood zones.
The bill, if enacted, would help mitigate impacts, Warren said.
"We understand if we can get it through the Senate, we’re in good shape in the House…they want to push this one forward," she said.
Warren said that local feedback would strengthen her argument for the bill's passage, and meeting participants provided plenty of examples.
Marshfield Board of Selectmen Chair Steve Robbins said the town spent $32,000 fighting the flood maps, and the funding would have to be reaped elsewhere from the budget.
Marshfield Town Administrator Rocco Longo and Scituate Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi also spoke against the FEMA appeal process. Although towns adhered to tight timelines for appeals, FEMA's response was vague or nonexistent, they said.
According to residents, the maps and federal mandate would have severe and varied.consequences. Matt McDonough, a Marshfield selectman who owns a home a mile inland, said his flood insurance premiums would go from zero of $5,000 a year.
“That’s devastating for a local family,” he said.
State Rep. Jim Cantwell, who organized the public meeting, also referenced some who have seen rates go from a couple thousand dollars to as high as $68,000 annually.
Businesses too said flood reform would have a negative impact. Chris White, president and CEO of Road to Responsibility, would pay $100,000 annually in flood insurance costs despite being miles from the coast. Though one of the largest employers in Marshfield, he has no money to pay those fees, he said.
Chuck Haddad, owner of Haddad’s Restaurant, said he spent $3.3 million to raise his 77-year-old restaurant 13 feet, two feet above the old flood elevation, yet three feet short of the new flood levels.
The difference means his insurance would go from $5,300 to $22,000 annually.
“We did everything right, what the federal government told us, what the town told us, and we’re being penalized,” Haddad said.
Though the proposed flood reform relief wouldn’t exempt businesses from new rates, Cantwell said it would limit the increases businesses could see year to year.
real estate agencts and bank managers urged federal action, with several referencing the recent financial crisis.
The chilling impact on housing sales and housing prices would ultimately affect town finances, said David Ball of Scituate’s Coastal Coalition.
The concerns called for a longer-term solution, Ball said.
Warren agreed that the problem wouldn’t be entirely solved with a delay. Long-term, the science behind the maps needs to be reviewed, and a process put in place that homeowners could appeal flood maps without financial consequence, she said.
“We’ve got more work to do, but at least we’re headed in the right direction,” she said.