SEA ISLE CITY - Flooding on a barrier island is a serious risk - so serious that the city is taking nearly 200 people to court over it.
The city issued municipal court summonses to 193 homeowners last month over their alleged noncompliance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood standards.
"We actually identified a lot more than that," FEMA spokeswoman Mary Colvin said. "The city is taking very aggressive and proactive measures in making sure they do what they can to address this."
FEMA and city officials have been working with property owners to whittle down the list of violations this summer.
For many, that means adding, widening or unblocking vents designed to let floodwater in without endangering the home's structural integrity. If the vents at the base of the home are not large enough, the hydrostatic pressure can cause the walls to buckle or collapse, damaging or even destroying a house or condo. Property owners are being asked to confer with the city's code office over a remedy or else face a court date Sept. 15.
"We've done research over many years. We find that structures that are properly elevated sustain 75 (percent) to 90 percent less damage than those that have not," said Colvin, head of flood plain management and flood insurance for FEMA.
Sea Isle hopes to join 52 other municipalities in New Jersey that are part of the Community Rating System, which awards discounts of 5 percent to 20 percent on flood-insurance premiums. This discount translates into hundreds of thousands of dollars in homeowner savings islandwide. Avalon, Beach Haven, Brigantine and Long Beach Township each get the top discount, reflecting their preparedness for coastal flooding.
Property owners in all flood-prone towns are subject to the same rules. FEMA tries to inspect New Jersey municipalities in the Community Rating System every five years to make sure their homes comply with flood standards.
More than 19,000 U.S communities participate in the National Flood Insurance Program by enacting local laws aimed at protecting property from flood damage in exchange for federally-backed insurance for property owners. Out of New Jersey's 566 towns, 549 are in the National Flood Insurance Program. But Sea Isle and other New Jersey barrier islands are unusual because virtually every property on them is in a floodplain. Sea Isle's floodplain map is a giant gray blob that stretches from its border with the Strathmere section of Upper Township in the north to Townsends Inlet in the south.
Sharon Miller, who owns a home on 55th Street, said she was surprised when she got a summons to appear in court in September.
"Apparently, the home was approved for occupancy when we bought it in 2003. Now we're being told it's not acceptable," she said. "If they had been following the code all along, we wouldn't be in this position."
Sea Isle City Construction Officer Neil Bryne said FEMA narrowed its construction standards in 2008 so that certain types of vents did not get the same credit in inspections.
"Through no fault of anyone, these vents became about one-third less than the standard requires," he said. "FEMA no longer accepts it. Underwriters no longer accept it."
Miller hired a contractor to install new vents in her home and avoid a court appearance. Her contractor, David Sonner, of Pitman, Gloucester County-based Smart Vent Inc., said some homeowners have vents that can be sealed in the winter. But unless the vents have valves that allow water to pass in and out, they do not comply with the rules.
"We retrofit them. The average retrofit we do - six in Sea Isle just in the last two weeks - costs about $1,500," Sonner said. "There will be less damage to their homes and their neighbors' homes if they do this."
But FEMA identified other potential violations in Sea Isle. In some cases, homeowners have converted foundation-level rooms intended only for storage into living space such as an extra bedroom or recreation room. In real estate parlance, these are called "bonus rooms."
"Thirty years ago, we were continually paying to repair the same basements and recreation rooms over and over again," FEMA's Colvin said. "Now we only cover things that are necessary for the house: a furnace, a hot-water heater, a pump, unfinished drywall. We will not replace any personal belongings."
The simple fix is to return the room to storage, Mayor Leonard Desiderio said.
"If you're my neighbor with an illegal bonus room and you're costing me my flood-insurance discount, take it out. You bought that house knowing it was a storage room. Over the years, people change them," he said.
Bryne said the city set a September court date to give property owners the summer to address the deficiencies.
"Sea Isle does not want to drag anyone into court. We don't want to fine anyone. We want to bring people into compliance so we can enter the Community Rating System," Bryne said.
Desiderio said the city sent correspondence to property owners before taking the step of writing court citations. He said he sympathizes with property owners who are being asked to pay for improvements. But he said the city has to consider the welfare of the entire island, and the benefits everyone stands to gain from insurance discounts.
"Out of 7,250 residential units in Sea Isle, FEMA has given us a small percentage of homeowners - a list of 193 with possible violations," he said. "We're not out to harm anyone or cause any exorbitant amount of money. We're working on this as a community. All we're asking is for cooperation."
Contact Michael Miller: