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Something New for Post-Sandy Homeowners to Worry About, State's Proposed Rebuilding Requirements

Surviving after the superstorm means navigating a maze of maps, zones, elevations, insurance increases, and state and federal funding.

Residents of New Jersey only have until today to comment on the Department of Environmental Protection’s proposal to adopt new statewide flood-elevation requirements.

As might be expected of anything that has to do with post-Sandy reconstruction -- a powder-keg topic given the emotional and financial baggage -- the new maps are drawing flak from homeowners and municipal officials.

Some argue that the new requirements are too difficult, in sum or in part, or too expensive to meet (or both). Some insist that their homes have been assigned to the wrong zone, which can be a very costly mistake. Almost everyone is worried about significantly higher insurance rates, which can climb 200 percent or more over five years, according to FEMA. And, not surprising given that concern, virtually all homeowners whether they are rebuilding or starting fresh, want to know where the money to fund a pricey project like elevation is coming from.

Rules and Regulations

The proposed rules would compel builders of new and substantially damaged residential structures to raise the lowest floor of a house one foot above the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s provisional flood-elevation maps. (“Lowest floor” is defined as the floor of the lowest enclosed room, not including FEMA-compliant parking, storage, or entry areas.)

The state’s current rules are set to expire November 7, 2014, but the DEP is seeking to codify emergency regulations implemented after superstorm Sandy, with the option of amending them over the next seven years as needed. Last December, FEMA rushed the release of its incomplete Advisory Base Flood Elevation (ABFE) maps -- two years in the making -- to provide Sandy victims with quick guidelines to help them expedite repairs and reconstruction. One month later, Gov. Chris Christie temporarily adopted the advisory maps and set March 21st as a deadline for the provision to expire. FEMA won’t release its final maps until sometime later this year.

The maps are proving incendiary because of the enormous cost and complexity involved in elevating a house and the burdensome economic implications for flood-insurance policy rates. True, the state’s mandatory elevation requirements apply only in the original Special Flood Hazard Areas (aka "100-year" or “base” floodplains) and only to new residential builders or homeowners who suffered substantial damage. But anyone else in a high-risk area who doesn’t voluntarily elevate could be saddled with annual flood insurance premiums that can increase by 25 percent annually until they reach actuarial rate, which reflects the true risk.

V Zones and A Zones

That helps explain why some homeowners and municipal leaders are begging the DEP to relax some of its requirements, which apply most stringently to property owners in velocity zones, or “V zones.”

V zones, like their companion A zones, are located in SFHAs and, according to the National Flood Insurance Program, have a 26 percent chance of flooding over the life of a 30-year mortgage.

But the V-zone designation is reserved for structures in tidal areas that also are considered to be at risk from storm surges higher than three feet above the flood waters. The ABFE extends the V zone into the back bays and interior of the Shore’s barrier islands for the first time, with the total expanded base floodplain increasing 15 percent to 267,944 housing units, according to the Department of Community Affairs (DCA).

Though the DEP requires both A- and V-zone rebuilders who suffered substantial damage to elevate within four years, those in Zone V must raise their houses on pilings -- the most protracted and expensive method.

At the DEP’s only public hearing on the extension, held in Long Branch on March 7, many irate homeowners who found themselves newly placed in a V or A zone complained that they’ve never seen waves near their properties, much less waves higher than three feet.

According to the Asbury Park Press, Laura Lesko told officials about her unflooded home, located a mile and a half from Barnegat Bay in Lacey Township, Ocean County: “Cedar Creek has never seen a wave, let alone three feet of wave action. Yet I’m now in the same zone as oceanfront houses.”

Also according to the article, Ocean County developer David Lipton reminded officials that FEMA has yet to complete its due diligence, leaving homeowners who’re forced to comply with unfinished DEP regulations in a prime position to sue for variances.

“It would be arbitrary and capricious to vote to adopt those maps based on the evidence before you,” he said, citing a report that notes that FEMA hadn’t finished researching wave velocity before releasing its maps.

“The ABFEs were based off best available data we had as a result of ongoing coastal analysis,” said Bill McDonnell, FEMA’s deputy branch director for mitigation. “We know our zones were conservative but we felt it was prudent to release information that guides building in a safer, more resilient manner rather than allow them to rebuild according to current maps, which we know would be putting them into noncompliant zones and standards.”

DEP officials stress that until the ABFEs are finalized, an elevating homeowner can choose to hire an engineer to provide an independent assessment and construct to those recommended heights.

Insurance Rates Rise with the Flood Waters

The DEP also noted that by adding an extra foot to FEMA’s minimum requirements, a homeowner should be covered if the final map requires slightly more elevation. If it requires less, the homeowner could enjoy savings on flood insurance rates, which are likely to go up regardless, thanks to the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012. The act eliminates subsidies so that all policyholders pay rates that reflect their actual risk.

In addition, even if the DEP were to reconsider its delineations, disgruntled homeowners wouldn’t find much greater relief. If the DEP fails to make permanent its adoption of FEMA’s ABFE maps, the state’s coastal-area construction codes will revert to standards based on FEMA’s existing maps, which in some cases date back 25 years. Because federally issued flood-policy premiums are based on Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs), drawn according to the latest ABFE maps, within two years, policyholders who don’t build to FEMA’s as-yet-unreleased standards could face similar rate increases as those who don’t elevate their houses at all.

It’s a hard lesson learned by victims of Hurricane Katrina, one that FEMA and the DEP wish to avoid. “We’ve heard from residents that, ‘Sandy hit, you slapped together these maps and you’re making us elevate like crazy,’” said Vince Mazzei, a supervising environmental engineer for the DEP. “On the contrary. We recognized these maps were in need of revision but after Katrina people just rebuilt to old standards. We’re still fine-tuning but this is a really close benchmark.”

The ABC’s of Construction Permits

DEP employees say that by aligning their regulations with those of FEMA and the DCA, which governs construction in the state, they’re streamlining the process for homeowners so they won’t have to face conflicting requirements at the federal and state level.

“We have been coordinating our efforts. That’s why the DEP is working off FEMA maps. All three agencies are getting on same page, making sure we have the same standards,” said Robert Piel, the DEP’s acting director of land use management.

And by enacting a law that allows rebuilders in flood hazard areas to bypass the DEP permitting process if they stay within the footprint of their former house, the DEP is further simplifying the process. What’s not getting simplified, however, is the patchwork of local zoning ordinances, many of which find themselves in conflict with the DEP’s elevation requirements and the subject of debate in the legal community.

The issue, which will vary municipality by municipality, concerns the definition of “continued use,” as it pertains to grandfathered nonconforming homes: if a home has been temporarily or permanently vacated poststorm, does the newly built or rebuilt structure qualify for the same non-conforming privileges as the damaged or destroyed structure, and if so, do the privileges extend only to the original owner or do those rights transfer?

The Nuts and Bolts of Elevating

For those homeowners forced to elevate, it’s hard to know which is more difficult: figuring out how to lift their homes to comply with state law or finding the money to do it. It’s an endeavor that can run from $10,000 to $150,000 or more, depending on the size of the house, the type of foundation, and the method of elevation.

New Jersey V-zone property owners must rebuild on top of piles, thick columns driven deep into the ground or jetted in with hydraulic pressure. The most extensive of all elevation methods, this is the only one that usually calls for the foundation to be removed and the home to be moved to the side during the elevation process rather than simply jacked up and stabilized with a network of steel beams thrust into holes cut into the lower part of the walls. All methods may require attached porches and garages to be removed before lifting can occur.

Homeowners outside the V zones can opt to elevate their wood frame, masonry, or masonry veneer houses using posts or columns either encased in concrete or anchored to a concrete pad. In many cases, the foundation must be removed and any basement or crawl space filled, according to FEMA.

These homeowners may enclose the ground-floor areas to use them for parking, access, or storage, so long as, among other conditions, they install flood vents not more than one foot off the ground and do not finish the rooms.

In these lower-risk flood zones, homeowners may also choose to extend their foundation walls or abandon the lower floor and build a higher level -- choices that are guided in part by whether or not the home is built on a slab. In all cases, utilities and electronics must be raised to at least the lowest living floor -- something many homeowners complain that their homeowners’ insurance companies don’t pay for.

Most homeowner policies don’t cover elevation, and the supplemental Small Business Administration loans and $30,000 in FEMA Increased Cost of Compliance grants don’t typically cover nearly enough. In an attempt to make up the difference, Christie announced this month that he’s requesting $600 million in block grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for a Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program. If approved by HUD as part of its overall Sandy relief package, the program will provide 20,000 eligible homeowners with up to $150,000 each to offset reconstruction, rehabilitation, elevation, and mitigation costs. Seventy percent of the funds will be awarded to low- to moderate-income households.

“These programs have been carefully, but quickly designed to fill the unmet needs faced by our residents to rebuild in a safer, more enduring way, to strengthen our impacted local economies going into this summer, and to help preserve the unique character of our shore communities as we’ve known them,” the governor said in a statement. Superstorm Sandy caused an estimated $3.837 billion in damage to houses and apartments throughout the state, with over 86,700 units affected.

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter in 2005, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.

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