Legislative Package Offers Help to Property Owners Still Recovering from Storm

Bills range from safeguards against unqualified contractors to help with mold removal

State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex)
After months of hearings on how to deal with problems posed by Hurricane Sandy, lawmakers yesterday advanced a package of bills designed to help homeowners and others cope with rebuilding efforts.

The Senate Environment and Energy Committee approved bills ranging from a measure (S-2976) to help safeguard homeowners who want to elevate their homes from contractors not qualified to do the job, to legislation (S-2081) aimed at making sure mold hazards are removed safely — based on the best industrial standards and federal environmental regulations – from residential structures.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), chairman of the committee, said the bills would be supplemented by more legislation in coming weeks to address problems posed by the superstorm, which struck the state a year ago in late October.

His committee and the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee held a series of hearings up and down the state over the past several months, listening to repeated complaints from residents and business owners about their inability to obtain coverage from their insurers, loans from banks, and answers from bureaucrats at both the state and federal levels on how to proceed with rebuilding efforts.

The action yesterday by the Senate indicates the Legislature wants to play a more prominent role in how New Jersey recovers from the storm, and potentially with bipartisan support.

“What’s important about today it may usher in more bills in a bipartisan way that will be important in rebuilding from Sandy, but building in a smarter way,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, which supported the package.

At the same time, lawmakers have grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of transparency on the part of the Christie administration about its own efforts to help residents rebuild after the hurricane. No administration officials appeared at any of the joint legislative committee hearings pertaining to the storm.

Nonetheless, the committee sought to address some of the more pressing issues confronting homeowners at the Jersey Shore and other places where owners have faced tough dilemmas in trying to recover from the damage wreaked by the storm.

Both the state and federal governments have pushed homeowners and businesses to elevate their structures, particularly those in flood-prone areas, to avoid damage from future extreme weather.

In the rush to recover from Sandy, however, many homeowners have encountered problems in trying to elevate their homes, as Smith noted. He cited a case in Highlands, where a home that was being raised tumbled into the next-door neighbor’s house.

“There’s people who are doing it with no experience and not doing it with the proper equipment,’’ said Smith, a sponsor of the bill.

Sen. Christopher “Kip’’ Bateman (R-Somerset), a co-sponsor of the measure, agreed. He noted the bill would establish new consumer protection standards for home elevation contractors, requiring them to register with the state Department of Community Affairs, have at least two years of field experience, and have proper equipment to raise the homes.

“Elevating a home is a serious undertaking that requires the right training and equipment,’’ Bateman said. “After all they have been through, homeowners need to have the peace of mind that their contractor is insured and knows what they are doing.’’

Senate bill S-2081 aims to provide more protections for homeowners trying to deal with mold issues. However, the legislation, already approved by the Assembly, was stripped of a provision requiring the state to develop health-based standards for the removal of mold. Instead, contractors would have to follow guidelines established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and adhere to accepted best practices in the industry.

“The bill is not perfect,’’ said Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean), a sponsor of the bill. “It’s a beginning.’’

Besides the aforementioned bills, the committee also voted out a bill (S-2632) that would allow municipalities to float loans to homeowners to rebuild their structures to make them more resilient in future storms. The loans would be paid back by an increased property assessment on the house over 10 years.