BOSTON — Massachusetts lawmakers are weighing plans to buy up waterfront homes and properties that are repeatedly damaged by storms, hastening the retreat from an eroding coast.
The proposal — tacked onto a climate change bill that cleared a key committee on Beacon Hill this week — authorizes the state to buy storm-damaged coastal property through a previously approved $20 million fund.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, and backed by two dozen lawmakers, including Sen. Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover, and Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead.
Environmentalists, who helped write the proposal, say rising sea levels and the increased likelihood of devastating storms are creating urgency for the state to help homeowners leave the coast.
“This plan would convert vulnerable and dangerous flood-prone properties from liabilities to valuable community assets while sparing lives, protecting the environment, and saving tax dollars,” said Jack Clarke, director of policy and government relations at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. “We have tax dollars going to subsidize properties when they are damaged, so this would also save money.”
Clarke said other alternatives for battling coastal erosion – such as man-made barriers like the stone jetties at the mouth of the Merrimack River off Plum Island – are costly and largely ineffective.
The buyback plan is one of several measures recommended by the state’s Coastal Erosion Commission, which is taking stock of damages to property, infrastructure, beaches and dunes since the Blizzard of 1978 and estimating potential damages from storms over the next decade.
Details of the buyback, including how many properties are eligible, haven’t been worked out, Pacheco said. The bill would require a fair market assessment of at-risk properties, and participation would be voluntary.
Funds couldn’t be used for eminent domain, where the state seizes private property for parkland and other projects.
Tarr on plan
Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said he supports a coastal buyback program for waterfront homeowners who “either can’t afford to or don’t want to continue to struggle against environmental conditions.”
“We’ve had a number of homeowners who wanted to participate in the federal buyback program but couldn’t because they didn’t qualify,” said Tarr, whose district, besides Cape Ann, includes most of Plum Island. “I think there would be a lot of interest in this.”
Tarr said he also wants the state to ease environmental regulations that have kept property owners along the coast from fortifying their homes against winter storm surges and waterfront erosion.
“Long before their homes were threatened by storms, people on Plum Island were seeking to do things to protect them and were prevented from doing so because of state regulations,” he said.
Pacheco said that rebuilding coastal properties that are repeatedly damaged by storms is driving up costs for the state and the national flood insurance program, which is more than $24 billion in the red.
“Every time these properties in coastal high-hazard zones get damaged and fixed up, that comes at a cost to everybody else who pays flood insurance,” he said. “We know that the intensity of the storms is getting worse, and sea levels are rising, and so we need to take steps to protect the coastline.”
Driving up costs
Pacheco said rebuilding coastal properties that are repeatedly damaged by storms is driving up costs for the state and the national flood insurance program, which is more than $24 billion in the red.
“Every time these properties in coastal high-hazard zones get damaged and fixed up, that comes at a cost to everybody else who pays flood insurance,” he said. “We know that the intensity of the storms are getting worse, and sea levels are rising, and so we need to take steps to protect the coastline.”
Pacheco said the larger climate-change bill also requires the state to assess the vulnerability of property and assets to determine the long-term cost of coastal erosion. In addition, it requires the Department of Environmental Protection to come up with rules on dredging along coastal lands.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a similar buyback program but reports only having purchased a few properties. FEMA officials said the flood insurance program has paid multiple claims in the past decade for 534 repeatedly damaged properties along the New England coast – including several on Plum Island. There are more than 12,000 such properties nationally, according to FEMA.
Congress sought to fix the flood insurance program two years ago by axing subsidies for waterfront homeowners, but it repealed the changes amid an uproar from homeowners hit with higher premiums.
New England’s sea levels are rising faster than the global average, according to the state Office of Coastal Zone Management, which attributes the trend to climate change exacerbated by human activity.
Nearly 85 percent of the state’s 6.7 million residents live within 50 miles of the coast, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
State has lost 30 feet of coastline in year
The Sandy Point Reservation on Plum Island loses an estimated 5 feet of beach a year, according to Coastal Zone Management, though some local officials suggest the sand is shifting from one side of the island to another, not disappearing. In Ipswich, Crane’s Beach loses about 4.6 feet a year, while Swampscott’s Phillips Beach loses nearly 2 feet a year.
In the past year, the state has lost 30 feet of coastline to erosion overall, the state agency said.
Meanwhile, cities and towns along the coast have spent millions of dollars to scoop up sand from offshore locations to replenish their beaches.
Pacheco’s bill could be taken up by the Senate as early as Thursday. The House would also have to vote on the legislation.
Christian Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the Times’ and its sister newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.