FEMA maps expand flood zones in Oak Bluffs

The planning board wants to raise awareness of the finalized flood maps and explore flood preventive measures that can reduce insurance costs.

As sea levels rise, scenes like this will be more commonplace in Oak Bluffs. — MV Times file pho

The Oak Bluffs Planning Board got its first look at the final Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) at its regular meeting last Thursday. Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) executive director Adam Turner presented the planning board with a rendering of the new FIRM, overlapping the 2010 FIRM, to demarcate the changes made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Not surprisingly, given sea level rise predictions, the special flood hazard areas in Oak Bluffs have expanded. Changes in flood zones could affect property owners in a number of ways that include the building codes that would apply to any projects and insurance rates. 

“The amount of change in Oak Bluffs is pretty significant,” Oak Bluffs planning board chairman Brian Packish said, looking at the map. “311 structures are new to it, in addition to 166 acres of land.” 

A FIRM measures the high water mark in a “100-year storm.” Buildings in a Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) have a 26 percent chance of flooding over a 30-year period — the length of a typical mortgage.

For the purposes of the map, the MVC defined “structure” as any building having a roof square footage greater than 400 square feet, which can include guest houses, garages, and barns. The structure count came from roof prints digitized by the Massachusetts Office of Geographic Information (MassGIS) from aerial photos taken between 2011 and 2014.

“Homeowners really need to be aware of this,” selectman Gail Barmakian said. “We need to address this now.”

“Or you can let them address it themselves,” Oak Bluffs building inspector Mark Barbadoro said. Mr. Barbadoro is also the town’s designated floodplain manager. He said that individual homeowners can challenge their classification by submitting a Letter of Map Amendment (LOMA) to FEMA at any time.

Ms. Barmakian suggested If there are enough home and business owners affected, the town could potentially file the Letter of Map Amendment. “FEMA uses a cookie-cutter approach,” she said. “They are open to making changes.”

Per Ms. Barmakian’s point, on Jan. 19, the town of Quincy won a LOMA appeal of flood maps that were finalized last June. City officials, backed by an extensive engineering study, contended FEMA hadn’t taken into account seawalls, tide banks, marshes and other flood barriers. Mayor Thomas Koch said the successful appeal will benefit more than 1,500 property owners, according to a story published Jan. 20 in the Patriot Ledger.

At the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting, Mr. Packish suggested the planning board organize a public information meeting. Mr. Barbadoro and planning board member Ewell Hopkins agreed to draw up a white paper, similar to the one they published on home solar heating, that will instruct people how to appeal their flood insurance rating.

Missed it

FEMA only recently informed town officials that the preliminary FIRM, released in 2013, would become the final FIRM effective July 20. In a letter dated Jan. 20 addressed to chairman of the selectmen Michael Santoro, and copied to numerous town officials, Luis Rodriguez of FEMA’s Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration said, “On August 25, you were notified of proposed modified flood hazard determinations (FHDs) affecting the Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) and Flood Insurance Study (FIS) for Oak Bluffs …The statutory 90-day appeal period that was initiated on September 4, 2015, when [FEMA] published a notice of proposed FHDs for your community in the Vineyard Gazette, has elapsed … FEMA received no valid requests for changes in the FHD’s. Therefore, the determination of the Agency as to the FHD’s in your community is considered final.”

Although he was one of the town officials copied on the letter, Brian Packish, chairman of the Oak Bluffs Planning Board (OBPB) told The Times on Tuesday that he had not received the letter, and that he only became aware of the FEMA ruling at a meeting of selectmen on Feb. 9.

Don’t panic

In a conversation with The Times on Friday, Mr. Barbadoro advised homeowners not to panic about the new FIRM. “All it means is If you’re in an ‘A’ zone and you want to build a house, your lowest finished floor needs to be above base flood elevation,” he said. “You won’t be approved for a basement; you’ll need grates that let water in and out of the crawlspace to equalize the pressure on the foundations. It’s relatively small stuff.

“The ‘V’ zones are where the open ocean hits the land, and we already don’t let people build in those zones anymore. If you have a house already in a ‘V’ zone, and you remodel more than 50 percent of the home’s assessed value, then you have to elevate the entire house above the floodplain. That applies to ‘A’ zone as well. That’s where things get really expensive.”

Mr. Barbadoro said the most affected areas are around Brush Pond, Farm Pond, and Farm Neck. “In general it’s creeped into more waterfront properties,” he said. “The area around the harbor, the Campground, and around Sunset Lake also expanded somewhat. The hospital does not appear to be in a flood zone, but land around it does.” Mr. Barbadoro also noted there are properties that have been removed from SFHA designation, citing the Hidden Cove area as an example.

The planning board web page and the conservation commission webpage list the newly adapted FIRMS. The FEMA website can assist homeowners in obtaining copies of their FIRMs, how to read them, and how to apply for a LOMA. Floodsmart.gov, the website of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), can identify the flood risk of a particular home and show the homeowner insurance agents in the area who work with the National Flood Insurance Program.

FEMA and the flood insurance program do not require homeowners to purchase flood insurance. FEMA simply identifies the high-risk zones, and the program provides government-subsidized insurance.

A town must vote to accept a new FIRM, which is why FEMA tries to release the revised maps in time for a vote at town meeting. The vote is somewhat symbolic. If a town refuses the new FIRM, it will no longer be eligible for federal disaster aid. In addition, homeowners who want flood insurance cannot apply to the NFIP, or renew their current policies. Instead they would have to buy insurance on the open market.

“Flood insurance is nearly nonexistent on the open market,” a representative from Mr. Keating’s office told The Times on Friday. “If people do find it, they’ll definitely be in sticker shock.”

‘CRS’ spells discount

The Community Rating System (CRS) was also discussed at Thursday’s OBPB meeting. The CRS is a voluntary program run by FEMA that encourages communities in flood-prone areas to take preventive measures that exceed NFIP standards. In exchange for a community’s proactive efforts, policyholders receive reduced flood insurance premiums.

The CRS uses a rating system from Class 10 to Class 1. Most communities enter the program at a Class 9 or Class 8 rating, which entitle residents to a 5 percent or 10 percent discount on flood insurance respectively. Nearly 3.8 million policyholders benefit from the CRS, according to the FEMA website.

None of the six towns on Martha’s Vineyard is part of the CRS. Chilmark is not a National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) participant, so only five towns are eligible for the program. The Vineyard is not an anomaly. Only 15 towns in Massachusetts participate in the CRS, with Harwich, Marshfield, and Cambridge the most recent to join, according to Chris Markesich, CRS coordinator for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 1. The majority of CRS participants are in the South and Mid-Atlantic, where entire counties take part in the program. In Massachusetts it has to be done by towns because of the Home Rule provision.

Scituate is one of the towns in Massachusetts that participates in the CRS. Today the town is at CRS Class 8, so property owners get a 10 percent discount on their flood insurance.

“It’s a great program; I don’t know how communities survive without it,” Scituate conservation agent Pat Gallivan told The Times in a previous interview. A big reason more towns don’t participate in the CRS is the daunting 600-page application, which has to be updated annually. “Generally the book for CRS scares people, but once they start reviewing, most communities find it very easy to qualify for at least a class 9; some such as Harwich made it to class 8 to start with,” Tom Young, National Flood Insurance program manager for FEMA Region 1, told The Times on Friday.

The importance of the CRS is becoming clearer. This month, Barnstable County became the first county in the country to hire a CRS coordinator, who will work with any Cape town that wants guidance in applying to the CRS.

On May 20, Congressman William Keating will host a CRS conference in Hyannis.

“Any community that has interest can certainly give me a call, and I can talk to them about the requirements for application into the program,” Chris Markesich, FEMA Region 1 Natural Hazards program specialist and CRS coordinator, told The Times on Friday.

Mr. Markesich can be reached at 617-832-4712.