, Newburyport, MA

October 26, 2013

Worries grow over impact of coastal flood policy


---- — NEWBURYPORT — Municipal, state, federal officials and local real-estate professionals yesterday gravely came to a meeting of the minds on one emerging waterfront issue: New federal flood maps and proposed increases in flood insurance rates could have a “destabilizing” effect on local community life.

And they vowed to learn more and initiate action to slow the thrust of new federal regulations.

“New rules and rates are hurting consumer confidence,” said Karen Lynch, a Realtor and team manager of ReMax on the River in Newburyport.

“It is making it hard to sell a house (on Plum Island) because we don’t know what to tell people about what they will pay for flood insurance. There doesn’t seem to be a place to find answers” so that real-estate commerce can continue.

The matter of real estate came up at a meeting of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance, a group of public officials that generally focuses on beachfront erosion and fortifying the jetties.

State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, co-chair of the MRBA, introduced the topic because he said that many Essex County residents could be affected by new flood maps introduced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The maps expand the number of residences and businesses that are in a flood zone. FEMA officials have said if there is greater risk, property owners must pay more for flood insurance.

These officials are reacting to the federal Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, that expands flood zones so that more money will be generated by property owners to pay future claims.

Political analysts say that recent natural disasters, such as Superstorm Sandy that damaged parts of New York and New Jersey, have created a situation where the federal government doesn’t have the money to pay all claims that such disasters have produced.

Many homes on Plum Island are in line to pay more; state officials say the hikes could be 10-fold.

But definitive answers were few at yesterday’s MRBA meeting, attended by about 40 people.

Tarr noted that even bankers and real-estate officials appear without answers to pinpoint exactly what oceanfront and riverside properties are affected.

“There is reason for concern and what we should do is get some FEMA officials here to explain what is going on,” said Tarr, who has been a motivating force on the MRBA since its inception several years ago.

“And we’ll follow up with the state’s federal delegation to support a delay on this law until it can be further studied.”

A date for a meeting will be set and publicized, he said.

Plum Island has about 1,200 residences, more than two-thirds of which are in Newbury. The new rules also affect residences and businesses near rivers and tidal areas.

Newbury town officials say that new flood maps put “dozens and dozens” of residences into a new flood plain — and thus in line for major hikes in flood insurance.

But Doug Packer, conservation agent for Newbury, said it’s not easy to learn which houses are affected.

“Every case is different,” said Packer. “We have people coming in with concerns about their status but in most cases the best thing for them to do is to sit down with their insurance agent.”

Tarr noted that Congressman John Tierney, D-Salem, is supporting a federal measure to have the act delayed for three to five years.

Also, the Commonwealth’s entire federal delegation is supporting state legislation to delay implementation for at least a year while the science behind the creation of the new flood levels is studied.

But state officials say that no definitive delay action has been ordered, and the implementation of the tough new waterfront flood maps remains in motion.