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Gaming panel officially awards slots machine license to Penn National for Plainville

Monday, March 24th, 2014

By Max Lewontin, Sun Chronicle, Statehouse correspondent

BOSTON — State gaming officials voted unanimously to award the state’s first and only slots machine license to Penn National Gaming’s proposal for Plainridge Racecourse this morning after representatives for the company said they had no objections to the conditions cited by the panel.

“In addition to regulators, we’re partners now,” said Stephen Crosby, the state Gaming Commission chairman.

“I think Penn National is ready to get to work, they’re going to Plainville after this meeting,” Crosby said.

“The people of Plainville spoke very clearly,” he said at a press conference after the vote. “They’re accustomed to having a gaming facility, they’re used to the traffic issues and there was very little organized opposition.”

“They really voted with their feet with this one,” Crosby added

The proposal is projected to create 1,000 new construction jobs and bring in $250 million to the state in its first three years and $60 million after that, he said.

Timothy Wilmott, Penn National’s president, said the company was eager to get started after anxiously watching the commission’s presentations this week.

He said a celebration for the racetrack’s 100 current employees is planned for later today before the company meets with engineers sometime next week to discuss a date for breaking ground at the site.

Penn National hopes to begin live racing offerings April 15, with the combined slots parlor-racetrack projected to open in the second quarter of 2015.

“I lost a lot of hair this week watching the deliberations,” Wilmott said, noting that this was the first set of deliberations Penn had been involved in where the gaming commission’s discussions were public.

Asked about a ballot initiative effort to repeal the state’s gambling law in the fall, Wilmott said Penn would continue its work in Plainville, no matter what.

“We’re not going to slow down our construction process, and we’re going to fight if there is any kind of ballot initiative in November,” Wilmott said. “We’re confident we’ll get the right outcome.”

The decision to award the license to Plainville came after two days of presentations by the three competitors for the license, with several hours of deliberations by the commission on Thursday.

“We had a full discussion yesterday and I was proud to be a part of it,” said Commissioner James McHugh before the commission voted Friday morning.

“We have an excellent applicant and an excellent licensee. We keep getting letters that talk about predatory gaming, and this is a licensee that has an excellent record of dealing with mitigation [of these issues],” he said.

Crosby said going forward, the commission hoped to partner with Penn to tackle the issue of problem gambling, discussions that he said needed to take place in a public forum.

“What I hope the public takes away is the transparency of this process, what are our values, what are our thoughts, and that’s something we’re going to follow in awarding additional licenses,” he said.

Legislators hope to remove firearms licensing for carrying pepper spray

Monday, March 24th, 2014

By Max Lewontin, Sun Chronicle, Statehouse correspondent

BOSTON – State lawmakers are hoping for action on several bills that would allow citizens to buy pepper spray and chemical Mace without going through the time and expense of getting a firearms identification card.

“We need to waive that requirement to allow women to purchase pepper spray for self-defense purposes,” said Rep. Jay Barrows, R-Mansfield, who is a co-sponsor of one of the bills.

Currently, Massachusetts residents who want to carry pepper spray must be over 18 and pay $100 for a firearms identification card. The process is the same as obtaining a firearms license, with wait times ranging from four to six months, said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League.

Wallace called the current law “ridiculous.”

“With all the violence we have out there, it’s probably the minimum we can do in terms of licensing,” he said.

Advocates for the change say pepper spray and Mace, which are nonlethal and mostly used for self-defense, should not be equated with firearms. They hope to get rid of the licensing requirement and make pepper spray an over-the-counter purchase.

The issue has received increased notice in the wake of stricter background check requirements recommended by a recently released report on gun violence in Massachusetts commissioned by House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Legislators and supporters say debate over the licensing of pepper spray and Mace has been ongoing since legislation mandating background checks and licenses for firearms was passed in 1998.

“It’s one of those things where everybody shrugs and says, ‘How did that happen?'” Wallace said.

Several of the bills to change the law have been held up in committees for months, including H.2145, which was filed by Rep. Kimberly Ferguson, R-Holden, and co-sponsored by more than two-dozen other legislators.

It was approved by the House and Senate public safety committees and passed on to the House Ways and Means Committee last June.
“It’s about time it moves. It’s utterly ridiculous it hasn’t moved out of Ways and Means,” Barrows said.

Noting that sexual assault numbers have continued to increase, particularly on college campuses, Barrows said changing the law would make pepper spray comparable to buying cough medicine at a drug store, which requires an ID but not a prescription.

“If there are tweaks they need to make, that’s fine,” he said, referring to the committee.

One local gun shop owner said a change in the law would eliminate the threat of fines for people seeking self-defense tools.

“It’s a small part of our sales,” said Ted Oven, owner of Northeast Trading Company in North Attleboro, noting that Massachusetts was one of a handful of states which places restrictions on carrying pepper spray.

“We have people come in all the time to get pepper spray and find out they need a license,” said Matt, an Northeast employee who declined to give his last name.

“People buy it for their daughters, and then if they get caught with it, that’s a felony on their record,” he said.

Wallace said he did not think the bill would be held up because of calls for stricter background checks in the gun violence task force report.

“I can’t see that happening because if you look at who’s sponsoring this bill, they’re coming from both sides of the aisle,” he said.

Opiate abuse hits area hard

Monday, March 24th, 2014

By Jonathan Riley, Sentinel & Enterprise, Statehouse Correspondent

BOSTON — Senate President Therese Murray has called it an epidemic. A legislative committee has been formed to study it. And with opiate abuse increasing across the state and the nation, North Central Massachusetts has been one of the areas hardest hit.

“I think it’s evident how big the problem is,” said Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, chairwoman of the Senate’s Special Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options. “If you look at any newspaper almost any given day, you see cases of overdoses or arrests for possession.”

That media coverage got an added boost with the overdose death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman in New York City earlier this month.

Despite Hoffman’s high-profile case, heroin and pharmaceutical-painkiller addiction take a greater toll overall on less visible segments of society, some close to home.

Massachusetts’ per-capita overdose death rate was significantly higher than New York’s, and surpasses Vermont, Maine and Connecticut, according to an October report from the Trust for America’s Health. New Hampshire and Rhode Island had higher rates than the Bay State.

Another report, published in 2012 by the Massachusetts Health Council, found Greater Boston to have the highest rate of illicit drug-related emergency-department visits of any metropolitan area in the country.

Bad as that may sound, big cities may not even see the worst of it. A 2011 report from the Joint Coalition on Health found opiate overdose rates far above average in some North Central Massachusetts communities.

Fitchburg was highest in the region, with 15.9 deaths per 100,000 people, or more than 70 percent above the state average of 9.2.

The report also found nearly 7 percent of area high-school students reported having used heroin.

The report’s authors noted that number was “significantly higher than the number of youth reporting use at the commonwealth and national levels.”

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported nationwide heroin use among 18- to 25-year-olds at less than 2 percent for the same period, and less than 1 percent among 12 to 17-year-olds.

Flanagan said North Central Massachusetts’ numbers “are astronomically high.” Still, she thinks the problems can be solved.

“There needs to be education about drugs, and drug addiction, and treatment options,” she said.

Flanagan said the committee is concerned with so-called “Section 35″ civil commitments, which allow for the involuntary commitment of people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others by a request from relatives or certain officials.

When there are no beds at Department of Public Health facilities, male addicts detained under the law are sent to Bridgewater State Hospital.

Women are sent to the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Framingham — a prison “not designed, equipped or staffed to serve as an acute treatment facility for substance abusers,” according to a Department of Correction Advisory Council report.

Flanagan also stressed the importance of “after care.” Once a user has gone through detoxification, she said, “you need education, you need changes in your environment, you need a job, you need a place to stay,” to keep the addiction cycle from repeating.

“Massachusetts has been so forward-thinking in health care,” Flanagan said. “Why can’t we treat addiction as the health issue that it is?”

Fitchburg Police Chief Robert DeMoura agreed that approaching opiate abuse as a law-enforcement issue does not make the most sense.

“It’s absolutely a public-health issue,” DeMoura said.

And DeMoura said it is getting worse.

“It’s very clear that, over the course of my tenure as a police officer, it’s become a bigger problem,” he said. “Our concern has always been that the cheapness of heroin creates more addicts than anything.”

DeMoura said he thinks pharmaceutical opiates like oxycodone are over-prescribed, and doctors should consider less addictive alternatives.

“They get addicted because of a legitimate injury. They get put on these painkillers,” he said.

Flanagan also pointed to the problem of prescription pills as gateway drugs.

“People may start using Oxycontin,” Flanagan said. “They may have an injury, and then they move to heroin because it’s cheaper.”

But when people try to quit using heroin, they face other challenges.

Ryan Castleberry, a recovering heroin user living in Oakland, Calif., has mixed feelings about his experience with methadone clinics over the past two years.

“When you originally go in, the idea is that they detox you within 20 days,” he said. During this period the clinic gives users gradually decreasing doses of methadone.

Castleberry views the clinic as “sort of like a double-edged blade. It’s beneficial because you don’t have to go out on the street looking for junk,” he said.

“But at the clinics, if you have medical insurance, or even if you don’t, it’s way cheaper. And then you just go in every day in the morning and go get it. So in that sense it kind of makes things more structured.”

Habit Opco, a chain of methadone clinics with a branch in Fitchburg, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Other kinds of programs also seem to help addicts in some ways, while simultaneously enabling their addiction.

Karen McKinney, a graduate student at Boston University, spent several months last year volunteering at a needle exchange for a journalism project. She saw the problem of painkillers leading to heroin abuse firsthand.

McKinney said one woman “didn’t start doing anything until she had been diagnosed with cancer, and then she got put on some pain pills, and then she got addicted to the pain pills, and that led to one thing and then to another, and her life had gone drastically downhill.”

McKinney said “there didn’t seem to be a typical person, or a typical story.”

“I met one girl who was first introduced to heroin at 13 years old by her mother, and she had been homeless since she was 17, and she would do any drug she could get her hands on, just because she hated her life so much,” McKinney said.

“Her boyfriend beat her, and then got her pregnant, and then the baby died, and then he went to prison. I mean, you know, there’s just really horrible stories,” she said.

If there was a common factor among the addicts, she said, it was poverty, and the lack of stability in their lives.

“It is sad,” McKinney said. “And it’s this cycle, and I don’t know how to stop it. It’s like these people have no chance.”

State agency approves $39.3M for North Middlesex school project

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

By Jonathan Riley, Sentinel & Enterprise, State House correspondent

BOSTON — The North Middlesex Regional School District is one step closer to having a new high school in Townsend after the Massachusetts School Building Authority approved a $39.3 million grant for construction on Wednesday.

“We’re very excited that the project was approved,” said Superintendent of Schools Joan Landers. “A lot of hard work was done by the building committee, and also the MSBA.”

The next step for the plan to rebuild North Middlesex Regional High School will be special March Town Meetings in Pepperell, Ashby and Townsend, the three communities served by the school district.

North Middlesex Principal Christine Battye said she was “absolutely thrilled” that the grant was approved.

“This is truly a chance to transform our educational system and our community,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be part of it. It’s terribly exciting.”

School Committee Chairwoman Susan Robbins, who represents Townsend on the committee, said she thinks the three towns will approve taking the next steps to eventually break ground on the project.

“You’ve got to think positive,” she said.

Heidi Messing, a member of the school building committee, said there was a “huge need” to rebuild the school, which was originally built in the late 1950s.

“The building is beyond its natural life. The boiler is beyond repair. It’s got to be replaced one way or the other,” she said.

Messing said renovating the school instead of rebuilding it would be “extremely disruptive.”

“It would be about a five-year project, and it’s only a 25-year solution, as opposed to a new building which is a 50-year solution,” she said.

Robert Templeton, chairman of the local building committee, like other officials involved in the plan, was pleased with the MSBA’s decision to fund the project.

“It’s fantastic for the towns,” he said. “It’s not every day you get a $40 million grant. It’s great for the kids in the community.”

The total cost of the project is estimated at $88.6 million, slightly under the maximum budget of $89.8 million set by the MSBA. If Pepperell, Ashby, and Townsend vote to move forward with the project, the rest of the money, beyond the MSBA grant, will have to come from local funds.

If the project comes in under budget, the extra money could go to a maintenance building and upgrades to athletic facilities.

“If we go out to bid, and the bids come in lower than what our total project budget is, then we may move forward to do those alternates if the funds are available,” Templeton said. “The towns also have to vote in favor of the alternates as well. The towns could go back and say ‘no, if you have bid savings, we want that returned.'”

Templeton stressed the state’s offer is a one-time deal.

“If the towns say no, then the $40 million grant goes away,” Templeton said. “If the towns vote yes, then we move forward with the project.”

Attleboro residents decry abuse

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

By Max Lewontin,Sun Chronicle, State House correspondent

BOSTON – Responding to reports of physical and emotional abuse of elderly and disabled residents in subsidized Attleboro housing, a group of local residents joined others Tuesday in urging lawmakers to support of a bill aimed at ending the abuse across the commonwealth.

The bill, proposed by Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, is modeled on similar regulations to combat bullying in schools.

It was filed on behalf of Jerry Halberstadt, 77, who lives in HUD-subsidized housing in Peabody and is an anti-abuse activist.

“The current regulatory framework is totally inadequate,” Michael Kane, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Public Housing Tenants, told members of the Joint Committee on Housing.

“People should not have to live in a climate of fear and intimidation because they have no other place to go,” he said.

Kane said the bill left open the question of what agency would handle reports of bullying at each development. He noted that oversight by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development and the quasi-public MassHousing has not been adequate.

The bill would mandate reporting of bullying and require training for public housing managers and employees on how to handle such incidents without retaliation against alleged victims.

The lack of training to handle bullying complaints has been a consistent issue, according to several residents who testified Tuesday.

They said managers and other employees at several developments had ignored their concerns, or sided with the residents who were doing the bullying.

“Bullies and those who allow bullying to continue must be held accountable,” said David Daugman, a former resident of Gardner Terrace on Pine Street in Attleboro.

The hearing turned emotional as Attleboro residents described being bullied by other residents and ignored by management.

They said that instead of addressing their complaints, some managers threatened them with eviction if they reported the incidents to police.

Gardner Terrace, which is privately owned but subsidized by state funding, came under particular criticism.
A former disabled resident, who only identified herself as Margaret, testified that she had repeatedly been bullied by elderly residents.

In her long and sometimes emotional testimony, she said that after she complained to the building manager, the bullying increased, as threats and taunts turned to physical and emotional abuse.

At one point, she said her arm was injured in the building’s laundry room, making it difficult to eat and rendering her unable to leave her room. She was eventually evicted from the development after residents who allegedly were bullying her complained about her to the management and Attleboro police.

“Management’s main concern is to keep the building quiet, and it’s easy to get rid of the most intimidated and the most vulnerable,” she said. “It’s very important to have a statewide law.”

A call requesting comment from Gardner Terrace management was not returned.

Legislators were mostly supportive of the bill.

“This is a very good bill,” said Rep. Paul Heroux, D-Attleboro, adding he had first been approached about the issue by a resident who had been bullied and feared retaliation. “It’s very comprehensive and well-drafted.”

Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, D-Dorchester, who is a member of the joint committee, said that bullying in public housing has also been an issue in her district.

“It does not make sense that we would allow this behavior to go on in the commonwealth, even in Gardner Terrace, which is privately owned,” she said.

Halberstadt, who drafted the bill after doing research into long-term effects of bullying on the elderly and disabled, said that in the future, legislators might consider defining bullying as a hate crime.

For now, he said, the goal was to provide more immediate oversight over bullying complaints.

“People in this situation need relief quickly because (bullying) is so damaging,” Halberstadt said.

Lawmakers embrace task force report on gun violence

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

By Allison DeAngelis, Metron West Daily News, State House correspondent

Area legislators generally supported the 44 recommendations released Monday by a gun violence task force. But gun advocates, including a Northborough gun owners association, said the year-long review would do little to change the confusing language of Massachusetts gun laws.

“They ask a question on the application – “have you ever been treated for mental illness?”— and that’s about it. There’s no registry to determine if the info on the application is correct,” said state Rep. Jeffrey Roy, D-Franklin, who applied for a license to carry recently to see how the system worked.

The committee’s recommendations target inconsistencies between state and federal laws and gray areas in current law, including mandatory live-fire training, background checks for all gun purchases, and guidelines to stop the purchase of licensure of guns to unsuitable persons.

Natick Rep. David Linsky, who supported tougher gun laws after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., praised the task force for recommending that the state comply with the National Instant Background Check system that prohibits the sale of guns to persons who are substance abusers or have a mental illness.

Currently, people who seek voluntary treatment or are involuntarily hospitalized for evaluation are not reported to the system.

“No gun legislation is easy to pass, but every single one of the recommendations in this report is a common sense approach, and it is hard to imagine that any rational person could oppose a recommendation this task force made,” he said.

The task force tapped the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association to create statewide gun license guidelines for police forces to halt “unsuitable persons” from obtaining a license to carry a firearm.

The task force found that the current approval process is a confusing mix of different processes and criteria that vary from municipality to municipality.

“There are 351 different communities in Massachusetts, and there’s a lot left in the hands of police chiefs who have very little guidance what to look for. We need standards to help police chiefs make that difficult decision,” said Roy.

But gun ownership advocates said there are too many laws already that have done little to stem violence.
Jim Wallace, executive director of Northborough’s Gun Owners Action League, said state gun laws are already confusing, and that the report does little to solve that.

Although the report and lawmakers noted that Massachusetts has some of the strictest gun policies in the nation, Wallace said that gun crime in the state has increased by 300 percent since new laws were enacted in 1998.

“It was very disturbing hearing them talk about how successful the gun laws have been,” he said.

The action league has tried twice to introduce legislation that would make gun laws more clear.

Some say Patrick’s budget plan falls short on school aid

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

By Daniel G. Petersen,Patriot Ledger,State House correspondent

BOSTON – Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to give the state’s public schools a 2.3 percent raise – bumping local education aid to $4.4 billion for the next fiscal year – has drawn a less-than-enthusiastic response from local school administrators and legislators.

Although the $99.5 million increase in Chapter 70 funding would bring school spending to record levels, critics are saying the boost won’t keep up with the needs of schools, which have been playing budget catch-up from cuts made in the past decade.

“The state can do a better job to meet the Chapter 70 needs,” Rep. Geoff Diehl, R-Whitman, said. “The percent increase seems extremely low considering the increased cost to schools.” Diehl said.

The governor proposed the highest level of education funding in state history last week as part of his fiscal year 2015 budget plan. But school officials, such as Brockton School Superintendent Kathleen Smith, say it won’t meet the increasing needs of cities and towns.

“We will make do with what we have,” she said. “But when times are difficult, we need to increase the number of grants coming into the district.”

The governor’s proposal came as Smith and her staff were struggling with their own budget, trying to find additional funding for immigrant students learning English and special-needs students.

If the final state budget fails to meet the needs of the school district, Smith said she will look to philanthropists, businesses, and the city to assist with the tight budget.

A member of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, Diehl said he would like to reinstate foreign language courses and remove user fees for playing sports in his school district.

Rep. Bruce Ayers, D-Quincy, agrees with Diehl that the House should add more education aid to its budget plan.
“It’s important that we develop strong school districts within our legislative districts and that we strive to secure the necessary funding for our Chapter 70 education funds,” Ayers said.

Rep. James Cantwell, D-Marshfield, acknowledged that passing the state education budget is always a long process.

“The governor’s budget is the bare bones,” Cantwell said. “But it’s based upon known revenue right now.”

Flood Plain-Main

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

By Francesca Barbato and Alexandra Shi,State House correspondent

BOSTON – Massachusetts coastal and riverside property owners are facing a double threat from rising sea levels.

The extensive damage to coastal New Jersey and sections of New York City caused by last year’s Superstorm Sandy is being called a preview of what Massachusetts will face sometime in the future.

But another storm is already breaking for many along the state’s coast and rivers in the form of rising property insurance premiums. These costs are likely to surge into adjacent areas of the state as a federal insurance program, often the last resort for waterfront residents, sets higher rates and extend flood plain designations to neighborhoods and towns once considered safe.

The projected effects of climate change and the resulting escalation of insurance rates will affect more coastline dwellers. State officials and real estate experts fear long-term ramifications on property values, tax collections and the construction business.

“It’s hurting our Massachusetts builders. It’s hurting our Massachusetts realtors,” said Rep. James Cantwell, D-Marshfield, who has taken a lead role in challenging the federal insurance changes. “They can’t sell their homes, and people aren’t buying because there’s so much uncertainty about what their rates are going to be for their flood insurance.”

Commercial insurance rates have been climbing based on predictions of rising sea levels and concerns about bigger, more frequent storms like Sandy, which caused $19 billion worth of damage to New York City and $29.4 billion to New Jersey last year.

According to the National Hurricane Center, Sandy was the second most costly tropical storm on record, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Meteorologists say that if the storm had pushed further north and hit the Massachusetts coastline at high tide areas of Boston and the South Shore would still be recovering.

Flood map projections show that Boston’s Back Bay would have been underwater and Cambridge’s Harvard Square would have suffered extensive flood damage. Quincy and Everett would also have suffered extensive flooding.

A Sandy-like storm would cause an estimated $12.4 billion in damage, according to Corelogic Inc., an Irvine, Calif., consulting firm that provides data to insurance companies.

Riverfront communities also are at risk. Various studies predict that within 25 years, Boston could experience the current 100-year flood along the Charles River on an average of every two to three years. The same fate is in store for communities along the Charles, Indian Head River, Taunton and Sudbury rivers to name a few.

Such projections have led property insurance companies to raise insurance premiums to levels steadily in recent years. More and more homeowners face sticker shock with each new premium

While news reports have singled out dramatic rate increases of up to 1,000 percent, Bob Desaulniers, a New England Federal Emergency Management Agency insurance specialist, said most affected property owners can expect to see on average increase of 25 percent in their yearly premiums – a hike of several hundred dollars a year.

Desaulniers said older homes those that suffered repetitive losses will face the sharpest increases.

“There shouldn’t be any wild, crazy jumps,” he said, “But a higher percentage of homes in New England are older.”

Insurance costs will also escalate as the result of the 2012 Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which requires the government-subsidized National Flood Insurance Program to increase insurance premiums on many coastal properties to more accurately reflect the rising risk.

The federal program, which had to borrow some $20 billion from the U.S. Treasury to cover losses from a series of big storms since 2005, covers 60,185 insurance policies representing a total premium of over $74 million in Massachusetts, DeSaulniers said.

The number of affected properties is likely to grow. Biggert-Waters requires FEMA to redraw flood plain maps to better reflect future risks. Although the new requirement won’t go into effect until February 2015, preliminary maps released last month added more real estate to the high risk zones.

Quincy had nearly 1,300 structures added to FEMA’s Special Flood Hazard Area. Marshfield saw 1,500 structures moved into the flood zone.

Inland areas along the state’s rivers have been designated in the more expensive, high risk zones. Framingham and Ashland, which are on the Sudbury River, have had about 100 properties reclassified to high risk flood areas. Acton, which lies on the Assabet river, has seen an additional 108 properties added to the special flood hazard area.

State officials fear the steady insurance increases – along with the spread of affected properties – will put the insurances costs of some homes beyond the range of their owners. Property values could fall and construction of new houses could drop as a result.

“We’re truly going to see people losing their homes, not from floods, but from flood insurance,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, said after a meeting with House Democrats in October.

While there is no hard evidence of a drop in real estate prices in Massachusetts yet, data from another at-risk state suggest it is possible.

A 2011 University of South Florida study of real estate sales in that state found that homes located in a flood zone typically sell for less than homes outside the zone.

When a home is placed in a flood zone and the property’s insurance premium increases, the study found that the sale price of the home decreases significantly.

Cantwell fears Massachusetts could face similar trends.

“Real estate is a huge part of the economy,” he said. “People who live along rivers, lakes and oceans, your property value could plummet.”

As state and federal legislators work to delay implementation of Biggert-Waters and offset its impact, some municipalities and individual homeowners are taking steps to mitigate potential storm damage and blunt rising insurance costs.

Specialty construction companies report an increase in interest from homeowners considering ways to move their properties out of harm’s way and beyond new, costly insurance flood map designations. Some are considering moving their homes to higher ground. Others are looking at “freeboarding,” a process of raising homes an additional two feet above new flood plain levels.

Seacoast communities are updating regulations and offering incentives to homeowners and builders to flood proof new and existing structures. Hull offers a $500 break on building permits to those who build foundations two feet higher than flood plain elevations.

Boston now requires builders to place essential mechanical structures, such as heating and electrical units, in higher floors rather than the usual basement location. Some property owners are making such changes on their own.

In other cases, towns such as Winchester and Lowell are using federal grants to buy up and demolish riverside properties that have experienced flood damage in the past, creating new parkland zones to absorb the impact of floods.

Despite the individual town efforts, Curt Spalding, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator for the New England region, said only 5 percent of New England communities have addressed flood risks.

Spalding said if homeowners and communities take action now, insurance costs would drop and damage from future storms would be reduced.

“There are a lot of approaches that can be used, but they [communities] have to get proactive,” Spalding said. “This is going to get very expensive if we wait.”

Editors: This story was written by Barbato and Shi with additional reporting by Gina Curreri, Lisa Hagen, Alex Hyacinthe, Carol Kozma, Yuan Ma and Loren Savini.

Flood Plain – Mitigation

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

By Gina Curreri and Carol Kozma, State House correspondent

Threats of rising flood levels are slowly changing the face of many Massachusetts communities.

Existing waterfront properties are moving up or back to escape potential flooding. Other structures are going away entirely, leaving a buffer area to blunt future floods. Municipalities are updating construction codes to require heating and cooling systems be moved from vulnerable basements to higher floors.

These changes are being made for reasons beyond mitigating storm damage. By securing structures or moving them up and out, property owners can literally rise above new flood plain designations, reducing the cost of their insurance.

Anne Herbst, Hull’s conservation manager, said more people are considering “freeboarding,” the process of elevating homes above predicted flood levels. Hull’s planning board now offers a one-time $500 credit against permitting costs to those who build two feet higher than required elevations.

Since the freeboarding incentive program began four years ago, 85 percent of the 30 projects seeking building permits have opted to raise foundation levels.

“I think [residents are] increasingly aware. If the flood insurance rates start to rise dramatically, that would also drive their awareness,” she said.

Marshfield is considering a variance that would make it easier for homeowners to raise their houses from the bottom while maintaining their views.

Town planner Paul Halkiotis plans to propose zoning by-law changes that would allow homes to exceed the town’s 35-foot height limit if it done to raise the bottom of the structure above projected flood plain levels.

““You don’t have to get as tangled up in as much red tape,” Halkiotis said.

Jack Clancy of Clancy Construction in Marshfield said he has received more calls this year from people looking to elevate their homes after learning new flood plain maps being developed by FEMA will place them in higher-cost insurance zones.

“It certainly caused a lot of confusion,” Clancy said. “[It is] leaving people fearful. They’re saying to themselves ‘what’s going to happen?’”

Raising a home is no small task. Surveyors and engineers must determine the necessary elevation for the first floor; structural engineers must decide how best to elevate the house. Homeowners then apply to the town’s conservation commission for approval.

Clancy said he could not estimate the cost of elevating a home because it involved too many factors ranging from the foundation of the house to its elevation.

But not all homeowners have to elevate their homes.

“It may be as simple as installing flood vents,” under the home which allows flood waters to flow through, Clancy said.

In Boston, builders are now required to outline how they’ll prepare for sea level rise before they’re granted a building permit. The Boston Redevelopment Authority voted on these new building permit requirements in November.

“We need to understand what’s vulnerable and what would be damaged and what is our vision for what we are going to do about it,” said Julie Wormser, executive director for the Boston Harbor Association.

To prepare for sea level rise, Boston’s Marriott Long Wharf hotel has elevated its critical infrastructure up to the second floor at a cost about $20 per square foot, Wormser said.

Despite the efforts, officials say more needs to be done.

Curt Spalding, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator for the New England region, said only 5 percent of New England communities have addressed flood risks.

He said in addition to raising or moving homes, towns might consider buying up properties to create open space as a buffer to flooding.

That happened in 2003 when 22 homeowners and tenants along the Spicket River in Lawrence were permanently relocated out of the floodplain at a cost of $1.4 million, paid for primarily with FEMA mitigation grants.

The neighborhood was converted to a field. When the river flooded the field during a storm in 2006, two dozen fewer families were impacted in comparison to past flooding.

Local and state planners could take a cue from Louisiana, which began organizing efforts at a state level after Hurricane Katrina. The state established the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, a 20-person board that assesses coastal projects and mitigation strategies.

The board decides what projects are most urgent, Garrett Graves, chair of the board, said in November at a Boston meeting of the National Institute for Coastal and Harbor Infrastructure.

The board, comprised of a variety of state agencies, meets monthly and has pooled $17 billion to fund projects from almost 40 different providers. The board oversees joint efforts to map coastal regions to measure flooding risks, and then, find the best way to tackle these risks.

“You have got to have a venue where folks can all collaborate and you can have accountability,” Graves said.

Flood Plain – Insurance

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

By Lisa Hagen and Alex Hyacinthe, State House correspondent

BOSTON – Massachusetts is being swamped with horror stories of skyrocketing insurance premiums for homes on the water’s edge and – more recently – in adjacent areas once considered safe from flooding.

Members of the state legislature and the congressional delegation say they are hearing of rates jumping by as much 1,000 percent, driven by changes in a federal insurance program and data suggesting more properties are at risk from rising ocean levels and climate change.

Rep. James Cantwell (D-Marshfield) says he has heard of premiums increasing as much as $60,000 per year. Other lawmakers have similar stories.

“The highest one I’ve seen was $60,000,” U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said. “The house was only worth $250,000. In roughly four years you’ve basically paid for your house.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) tells of a homeowner who saw his payment go from $3,000 to $68,000 a year.

“My major concern is that if costs are rising in that manner, people will lose their homes,” DeLeo said in a telephone interview.

Such examples are extreme, according to Bob Desaulniers, a New England FEMA insurance specialist. He said most property owners in or near flood plains can expect around a 25 percent increase – an average of a couple hundred dollars – in yearly premiums.

One reason for the increases is a change in the National Flood Insurance Program, the insurer of last resort for some 60,185 policy holders in Massachusetts.

Until last year the 45-year-old program offered subsidized insurance for owners of at-risk properties. But a string of losses from major storms such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina drove the program into a $25 billion deficit.

In response, Congress passed the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act, which requires the program to bring rates up to more realistically reflect risk. It also requires FEMA to remap flood plains to account for rising sea levels and an increase in severe storms.

Some of those increases, which began Oct. 1, are having a profound effect on real estate.

Paul Breen, a Provincetown insurance agent, tells of the sale of a multi-million dollar property that fell through because premiums were set to jump from $4,000 to $42,000.

“That was for the base $250,000 worth of flood insurance offered by FEMA,” he said.

Breen said additional private flood coverage was going to cost the buyers an additional $35,000.

“Their combined flood insurance premium was going to be almost $80,000 a year,” he said. “So they chose not to buy that property.”

Coastal municipalities have been hit hard by the insurance tsunami, according to preliminary data from Colleen Bailey, a mapping coordinator for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

From 2012 to 2013, Quincy saw nearly 1,300 structures added to the flood hazard area. Marshfield, saw an increase of more than 1,500 structures; nearly 500 properties were added in Scituate.

Desaulniers explained that two types of properties are most vulnerable to extreme rate increases – older homes that predate earlier flood mapping and homes that suffer repetitive losses.

“There shouldn’t be any wild, crazy jumps,” he said, “But a higher percentage of homes in New England are older.”

Further increases are on the way. Biggert-Waters allows owners of older homes to keep their lower. But if the property is sold, higher rates will apply.

“The problem is that it’s a double whammy,” Breen said.

State and federal lawmakers are looking for ways to alleviate the pain for homeowners.

Cantwell thinks it would be fairer to shift some burden to homes that have suffered repetitive losses.

“One percent of national flood policies account for 33 percent of all claims,” he said.

Cantwell has also challenged FEMA mapping data, noting that 40 percent of the structures in Marshfield added to the flood zone never needed flood insurance before. Marshfield, Scituate, and Duxbury have appealed FEMA’s new maps.

According to Cantwell, U.S. Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.) recruited a group from UMass-Dartmouth to review the maps, charging that the FEMA maps used the wrong wave model.

“They used a model for the Pacific coasts which are different from the Atlantic,” Cantwell said. “Our waves come up gradually and our coastline is very shallow where the west coast is much deeper.”

Towns can appeal FEMA mapping to a scientific panel that can provide feedback. Cantwell said if towns are still unsatisfied, they can sue at the U.S. District Court.

“[I have] concerns that insurance companies [are] charging exorbitant costs without proper science behind it,” said Cantwell.

Lynch has joined over 100 members of Congress working on the Flood Insurance Affordability Act, a bipartisan bill that would help ease the transition.

“What we’re trying to do is require that FEMA conduct the affordability studies first and also make sure that their remapping technology and the process itself is consistent with the historical record,” Lynch said.

DeLeo filed a bill last month with Attorney General Martha Coakley and Cantwell that would allow homeowners to limit insurance coverage to the amount they still own on their mortgages.

“It is a risk they would take as to whether a particular situation really needs extra insurance, but they are not required to get it,” he said.