Property owners along the Jersey Shore have one element of uncertainty removed from rebuilding efforts: They now know how high to raise their homes.
Gov. Chris Christie issued an emergency order Thursday adopting tough new standards for rebuilding that dictate to municipalities and homeowners how high houses and buildings will need to be as well as how they are constructed.
While some worried that the changes could make it financially impossible for some homeowners to rebuild their damaged houses, Christie said the rules are necessary to protect the shore from future storms and are needed now to help the roughly 41,000 New Jerseyans still displaced from the storm.
“We don’t want to go through this again,” Christie said during a news conference in Seaside Heights. “We don’t want another storm again, but that we don’t get to choose. This is what we get to choose.”
The new regulations are based on preliminary advisory base flood maps issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency late last year, as a guideline for communities to rebuild following Hurricane Sandy. The state decided to adopt those standards, instead of waiting to see if FEMA would revise them, so that rebuilding efforts could begin.
“The choice we’re left with as a state is this: We can work with the current maps and rebuild the old to the old standard, or wait,” Christie said. “I can’t wait another 18 to 24 months to rebuild the Jersey Shore.”
Flood-insurance rate maps in some municipalities were last updated in the 1980s. Efforts have been under way to revise the data with newer methods and reflect more recent flooding patterns. The data from Hurricane Sandy were not included, FEMA has said.
The advisory maps more than double the areas flagged as velocity zones, which require buildings to be constructed with codes designed to withstand waves on top of floodwaters. The so-called “velocity zone” was once relegated to oceanfront properties, because houses right along the beach were considered most at risk. The range of elevation increase for most homes was between 1 foot and 5 feet.
Christie said the order, which will use the Flood Hazard Area Control Act as the mechanism, will lay a uniform rebuilding standard statewide, rather than the potential “patchwork” of local codes that differ from municipality to municipality.
Christie cited future flood-insurance rates as a critical reason as to why property owners would need to raise their houses to the new elevations. If FEMA adopts the advisory maps, property owners who did not fortify construction, rebuild new foundations or raise houses according to zones could face yearly flood insurance bills in the tens of thousands of dollars, the governor said.
Flood-insurance rates, which were not affected by the advisory maps, already have shot up as of this month due to new federal regulations requiring property owners to pay more into a deeply indebted National Flood Insurance Program. For those properties that may be below the base flood elevation in a few years, the cost increase is staggering, former DEP Commissioner Mark Mauriello said.
Flood insurance for a typical coastal zone house built to the minimum elevation standard would be about $1,700 per year for full coverage, he said. If the structure has been raised to 2 feet above the minimum, the cost is $633 a year. But if the house is 1 foot below the minimum standard, the cost is $5,200 a year; 2 feet below costs $8,300 a year, Mauriello said. Mortgage lienholders typically require homeowners in FEMA flood zones to carry flood insurance.
If a house is in a velocity zone and is 4 feet below the new elevation, as is what is listed for the entire Mystic Islands section of Little Egg Harbor Township, homeowners that make no changes will see an average annual premium in several years of as much as $31,000, Christie said.
Christie said that if FEMA downgrades the maps, then homeowners who already have rebuilt to the higher standard will benefit from lower insurance costs.
“Our interpretation is that (the FEMA map) is a very aggressive map, and if it is likely to be changed, it will be changed downward,” he said.
Brigantine Mayor Phil Guenther said he understood why the governor was announcing the standard as a way to break through uncertainty, but he had concerns. The new maps put a large swath of the low-lying north end of the island into a new designation that requires houses be built on driven piling. The majority of the houses there, Guenther said, are built on concrete block, so there are few, if any, economically feasible ways for homeowners to change their homes’ foundations.
“The challenge for homeowners, who are now placed in a (velocity) zone and are faced with elevating their homes, is still daunting for both a financial and logistical standpoint,” Guenther said.
“What may also happen is some homeowners may wait to see if the coastal zones from the preliminary maps change,” he said
Mauriello, who has been an outspoken advocate for the state adopting more stringent building standards along the coast, called Christie’s announcement “smart.”
“I give him a lot of credit for doing it,” said Mauriello, now the director of environment and policy planning for Piscataway-based Edgewood Properties. “We’ve been promoting these higher standards concepts for years.”
State Sen. Jim Whelan said he was “extremely concerned” about the impact on the lower- and middle-class sections of Atlantic County, including a hard-hit section of Atlantic City that has row homes and suffered severe flooding during the storm.
“I know there are people all up and down the Jersey Shore who are not going to be able to afford to raise their houses, and they can’t afford the flood insurance,” Whelan, D-Atlantic, said. “So what the heck are they going to do? I don’t know the answer to that. I hope (Christie) is willing to work with us.”
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