, Newburyport, MA

February 11, 2014

'Precedent-setting' decision fuels new effort in flood map fight

Staff Reports
Newburyport Daily News

---- — NEWBURYPORT — Armed with “precedent-setting” evidence, federal lawmakers are taking a new and stronger tack in their effort to undo federal flood maps that have placed thousands of coastal property owners into expensive, high-risk flood insurance zones.

The town of Rockport recently won its appeal of federal flood maps for the Long Beach section of town, based largely on evidence that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) used Pacific Coast wave patterns to draw its maps. Rockport officials argued those wave patterns are inaccurate for the Atlantic Coast, and submitted data that supported wave patterns that were more accurate and had less impact on the coast.

When approving the town’s appeal, FEMA stated that “the engineering analysis data submitted in support of the appeal provides evidence that the alternate method for determining wave setup provides a scientifically correct estimate of the Base Flood Elevations for Long Beach.”

Bay State lawmakers have long been arguing that FEMA used the wrong formulas to determine the Massachusetts flood maps. Yesterday Congressman John Tierney, D-Salem, joined with other Bay State congressmen to demand that FEMA “suspend and amend” its new maps based on the Rockport decision, which they described as “precedent-setting.”

The Rockport decision could have significant impact for homeowners along the local coast — including Plum Island, Salisbury Beach, Newburyport’s waterfront and other low-lying areas along the coast and rivers. Hundreds of property owners found themselves placed in flood zones due to the new maps, which were first released a few years ago. Many communities, including Newburyport, have formally appealed the FEMA maps. The city focused its attention on riverfront land owned by Newburyport Development and successfully argued that the new maps were inaccurate for that area. The Newburyport Development land is located primarily between the Route 1 bridge and the city’s downtown waterfront boardwalk area.

For many homeowners in the region, the flood maps were a double whammy. The federal government, which for years has subsidized the cost of flood insurance, passed the Biggert Waters Act in 2012 that sought to push the full cost onto coastal property owners. The cost of insurance can be enormous — in Newbury for example, Selectman Joe Story said one homeowner reported a $480 annual flood insurance bill could rise to $10,000.

Tierney and other lawmakers saw the Rockport decision as an important turning point in their effort to change the FEMA maps.

“FEMA’s decision to use a model that was untested and inaccurate for the Northeast is yet another example of its preference to do things quickly rather than properly. I am proud that the Town of Rockport, located in the Sixth District, took the initiative to seek out a more accurate mapping technique and appeal its flood maps on behalf of its constituents and hope that FEMA will recognize the unnecessary burden it has placed on so many families and businesses in Massachusetts and delay implementation of its new flood maps until they can accurately reflect the true flood risk in our communities. I will continue to fight to provide relief to residents and businesses who have been wronged by the mismanaged and unfair implementation of these maps and flood insurance rates,” said Tierney in a statement.