Emergency Rules Allow Shore Towns to Rebuild in Flood Zones

Tom Johnson | January 25, 2013 | Energy & Environment, Sandy
Christie warns: follow proposed FEMA standards or risk stiff increases to insurance premiums

fema map
If nothing else, the Christie administration’s efforts to spur rebuilding of the Jersey Shore by adopting emergency regulations yesterday reflects the enduring hold the long tradition of home rule has on the state.

The new rules will allow many homeowners and businesses to rebuild their structures as long as they comply with proposed standards suggested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency’s updated Advisory Base Flood Elevation (ABFE) maps may require homeowners and others to elevate their structures to avoid recurring flooding in the future.

The emergency regulations, proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection and adopted by the governor, are effective immediately. They also allow rebuilding in flood-hazard zones without requiring applicants to obtain a permit from the agency, a provision that could save at least $500 in fees.

The 194 coastal towns affected by federal maps detailing how structures must be elevated in areas prone to coastal flooding will have a big say in the process. Forty percent of the state’s population lives in flood-hazard areas, according to the administration.

“Municipalities will play a role in what gets built and when,’’ Gov. Chris Christie said at a press conference in Seaside Heights, one of the hardest hit towns by the storm.

The comments seem to further dash hopes of some planners and conservationists who thought the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy, which caused $37 billion in damage in the state, would force officials to reconsider regional planning along the coast. Some had suggested establishing a coastal commission, a proposal quickly shot down by the governor.

In the press conference, Christie said he believes the emergency rules will result in few owners being prevented from rebuilding — no matter where they are located. In some cases, however, Christie said the rules could prevent rebuilding to the federal standard only because the lot they own is too small to make it practical.

The emergency regulations are aimed at eliminating confusion for homeowners who want to quickly rebuild but do not know what the new construction standards will be. By adopting proposed FEMA guidelines for rebuilding, Christie hopes to push rebuilding now rather than waiting the 18 to 24 months the federal agency says it will need to adopt final maps.

“To me, waiting 18 to 24 months is unacceptable,’’ Christie said. “This is what we need to build a 21st century Jersey Shore. We don’t want this to happen again.’’

The governor, however, noted that the new regulations could force homeowners to make some tough decisions. Under the rules, they must rebuild to the new standards if more than 51 percent of their structure was destroyed by the superstorm. Others, with less damage, can rebuild to their former footprint, but would be subject to enormous increases in flood insurance costs, Christie said.

In citing one example, Christie said a homeowner choosing to rebuild without complying with the federal standards could face an annual insurance premium of $31,000. Those who comply with the new construction requirements would face a premium of only $7,000, according to the governor.

“There’s no question it will increase the cost of rebuilding,’’ Christie said of the elevation requirements, but added there’s no perfect solution.

Still, he seemed to urge residents and businesses to adhere to the new standards, even if they eventually are well above the construction requirements adopted by FEMA.

“I think the maps are plenty aggressive,’’ he said, in response to a question, “You are not going to suffer by rebuilding to a higher standard. ‘’ If the standard is going to be revised, the governor said it would probably be revised downward.

Asked if the new standards reflect projections of rising sea levels due to global climate change, Christie responded, “They say yes.’’

To some critics of the Christie administration, the move reflects a continuing assault on environmental rules. “It’s a combination of being anti-DEP and anti-regulatory, hiding behind the storm,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.