SALISBURY — In July, new federal flood maps for Essex County go into place that will affect the cost of insurance policies for most property owners at Salisbury Beach, near the Merrimack River and on the fringes of the salt marsh.
According to town officials, the changes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood insurance maps mean some people will find their properties are now located in the flood plain and many others whose properties have been in flood plains will see their elevations raised, signifying a greater flood threat in the proverbial 100-year storm.
Last week, Salisbury selectmen said the impact of the new maps could be financially significant to those involved. They will be hosting an information forum to help advise affected residents on how best to proceed.
The televised meeting, slated for the spring, will feature a variety of experts, including Richard Zingarelli, manager of the flood hazard management program at the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.
"We all agree we need to get publicity out about this," Town Manager Neil Harrington said.
After Salisbury dealt with changes to the town's FEMA flood insurance maps at the May 2008 Town Meeting, residents and officials were surprised to find waterfront properties once again being affected by the agency's update of its Essex County flood insurance maps.
Many of the properties involved — such as those on Ring's Island, along the Merrimack River and on Bridge Road — have never been included in the riskiest flood zones, nor did the financial institutions holding mortgages on them ever require flood insurance.
But the new FEMA maps place nearly every Salisbury Beach property in high-risk flood zones, raising flood elevations 4, 5 and even 6 feet in some areas, Selectman Jerry Klima said. The affected properties include not only those along the ocean, but those on the west side of the beach, along the salt marsh.
The same goes for many properties lining the Merrimack River on Ring's Island, Klima said. The new maps increased the elevation on island property along the southern part of the river by a foot and on the marsh-facing side of the island by 3 feet, he said. Ring's Island — technically not an island, but high ground surrounded mostly by salt marsh — is located across the river from downtown Newburyport. The cluster of several dozen homes would be completely surrounded by water, according to the new flood maps's projections.
In December 2009, Salisbury appealed the new changes related to Ring's Island, with island residents paying the $4,500 fee for an expert to research and undertake the appeal. FEMA's answer, delivered a few months ago, wasn't exactly what the town hoped for.
"We got a split decision," Klima said. "They reduced the increase (in elevation) on the river side of the island, but not on the marsh side."
Elevations are also changing on Bridge Road, which runs between the salt marsh on its east and Town Creek, a Merrimack River tributary, on the west. While no changes occurred up-river from the railroad bridge, the elevations for property on the east side of the bridge are increasing by a foot, putting them in the risk category for the first time, Klima said.
The new 9-foot levels are true for all marsh-edge properties, including parts of Dock Lane and Beach Road, he said.
Impact on flood insurance
The federal government, through FEMA, is the primary provider of flood insurance in the nation. Congress mandated the updating of the flood maps — some of which had not be reviewed in decades — to accurately assess the flood risk of the properties FEMA insures, so insurance premiums could be adjusted to meet the financial risks involved.
The map changes, first announced in 2008, will increase the premiums on flood insurance rates, as the risk of flooding due to storm damage increases. Since flood insurance is required by mortgage holders, town officials said they want to alert property owners and encourage them to act quickly to minimize the financial impact.
Salisbury Selectman and insurance agent Don Beaulieu said the cost for property owners who already have flood insurance can be "grandfathered" to a certain extent at the lower flood elevation premium rates if they act promptly.
Beaulieu said buying insurance before the maps take effect in July has financial benefit. That's because it's the velocity zone and flood elevation that's grandfathered. For example, insurance premiums for properties in the V-zone are twice as expensive as properties in the A-zone, and A-zone policy premiums are twice as expensive as those in the X-zone.
Since there won't be many properties on Salisbury Beach remaining in the X-zone under the new FEMA maps, reviewing the changes and adjusting flood insurance now will lock in the less-expensive zone rate.
Locking in rates is especially important for properties with mortgages, equity loans or equity lines of credit, since there is a federal flood insurance mandate for financial institutions holding mortgages on properties in flood zones. Homeowners without flood insurance can lose their financing.
In addition, those buying properties in flood zones will not get financing without flood insurance. Grandfathered zones can be transferred when property is sold, but only if the policy goes to the new owners at the time of sale.
Experts say even those without mortgages and not mandated to have flood insurance might consider obtaining policies before the new maps are adopted in the event their financial circumstances change, requiring them to refinance. For example, those planning to take a home equity loan to finance a child's education will find banks require flood insurance if their property is in a flood zone.