PROVINCETOWN — Floodwaters are a primal force, invading the landscape, insisting that things must change. In the January 2018 flood, for example, seawater coursed down Gosnold Street and filled a large basin on Bradford Street to a depth of three feet. Scores of homes and other buildings were damaged, including town hall.
Flood insurance does its work more quietly, but it also forces change. The compounding of costs makes inaction too expensive to contemplate. The slow work of spreadsheets enables adaptations that we would otherwise choose to avoid.
There are a variety of changes currently taking place in federal flood insurance rules, and the Independent asked Barnstable County’s floodplain manager, Shannon Hulst, what they might mean for Provincetown.
In the historic district, where hundreds of properties abut the harbor, flood insurance costs are likely to escalate. The good news, according to Hulst, is that the rate of escalation is capped — 18 percent per year for primary residences, and 25 percent per year for commercial property and second homes. The owners of property with federal flood insurance can calculate future costs by compounding what they currently pay by those maximum rates of increase.
“This new rating system FEMA is working on, Risk Rating 2.0 — it’s supposed to figure out what you should be paying,” said Hulst. “Over time, your premium will rise to that new number, [but] it’s not going to change the rate at which your current premium can increase to that new ‘correct’ premium.”
The revised ratings are meant to distribute costs more fairly. Premiums for people who are in the floodplain but not directly on the water might go down, said Hulst. Insurance costs for people directly on the water are likely to go up. But the rate-of-change rules remain in place.
The Independent also asked about the floodplain bylaw changes that are on all four Outer Cape town meeting warrants.
“There’s a statewide model bylaw that pretty much every town in the state is adopting,” said Hulst. “As a legal matter, the state decided that towns can’t have a stricter building code than the state does. Everything that people are used to seeing in their local codes is in the state building code. So, all those strike-throughs from the town bylaws — all of that is found in the state code.”
That means the rules for when a home must be elevated to above base flood elevation still exist. If a residential property undergoes substantial improvements — defined as at least 50 percent of the value of the structure — or if it is substantially damaged, then it must be elevated.
Much of Commercial Street is mixed-use, with residential space on the upper floors and commercial on the ground floor. In these cases, different kinds of wet and dry floodproofing can sometimes be used, said Hulst.
Sarah Korjeff of the Cape Cod Commission is a historic preservation specialist working with Hulst and others on design standards for raising and floodproofing historic buildings. She’s focusing on Provincetown because of the unusual concentration of historic buildings located directly on the waterfront.
“In some cases, in order to preserve historic buildings, we will have to elevate them,” said Korjeff. “In other cases, there may be alternate ways of protecting them. You can have nonresidential uses in the flood zone and just do floodproofing, as long as the floors above with people in them would still be protected.” A nonresidential ground floor can be armored against floodwaters or designed to be permeable.
“That may not be an answer that will work for a very long time,” Korjeff cautioned. There are a lot of factors to consider, including building materials, depth of expected flooding, and potential wave energy.
“For example, Outer Cape Health’s building in Harwich Port — they were able to floodproof the bottom four feet of the structure, and then have these special inserts that they can place in the exterior doors,” said Korjeff. “If flooding gets up to the highest level that’s predicted, it still doesn’t necessarily get into the building.”
There are also landscape-level interventions, like the large dune that Provincetown is building at the beach between Gosnold and Ryder streets to block seawater from cascading down Gosnold again. Home owners might also build barriers around their property, or even around groups of houses in a flood-prone neighborhood, said Korjeff.
A group of six graduate students from Tufts University will be exploring more theoretical adaptations for Provincetown this spring. Town Planner Thaddeus Soule pitched Provincetown as an ideal place for students of urban and environmental planning to do such a project. At present, they’re asking Provincetown residents to fill out a survey (at forms.gle/X3LirefbmHpLQgi68) about their favorite historic buildings.
Later this spring, the students will be presenting their work to the select board. Soule encouraged them to dream big and imagine things such as engineered coastal defenses and floodable park spaces, as well as strategies to raise large numbers of buildings without destroying the human-scale streetscapes of Provincetown.
In the summer, the local comprehensive plan committee should be presenting drafts of a new LCP. Because the goals identified in the plan set the criteria for judging applications that come before other committees, it is effectively the master policy document that will guide future development.
“We can’t have standards weaker than the Massachusetts building code,” Soule said. “But could we be more proactive, and do more, sooner? It would be great if we came up with a holistic plan that balanced community needs with the rights of individual property owners.”
To keep Commercial Street appealing to pedestrians, for example, the town might decide it wants café tables or pop-up shopping under lifted historic buildings, instead of parking lots and dumpsters. Once a policy is chosen, the town can nudge proposals to look more like the LCP.
Envisioning a flood-safe, enjoyable streetscape and making a plan to get there is a “this year” project — something to do before the next big flood, instead of after.