Raising Standards for Rebuilding After Sandy

For the first time in more than two decades, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) has updated its Advisory Base Flood Elevation (“ABFE”) maps for New Jersey’s coastal counties. The Christie Administration adopted these new standards as an emergency measure on January 24, 2013, and through formal NJDEP regulations, has now made them permanent. The revised FEMA elevations, which remain subject to change, are anywhere from two to four feet higher on average than the standards that had been in effect prior to Hurricane Sandy. New Jersey residents, particularly those impacted by flooding from Hurricane Sandy, should be aware of this change, as the NJDEP has incorporated these revised maps as the new standard throughout the state for the elevation of reconstructed homes in flood zones.

The Commissioner of the NJDEP, Bob Martin, defended the new standards as more protective of flood-prone properties, and as helping affected residents avoid a dramatic increase in flood insurance premiums once FEMA formally adopts new guidance for flood insurance. One obvious question is how some residents, still struggling to recover financially from the devastation caused by Sandy, are meant to afford such a significant undertaking as elevating their homes. According to a news release on NJDEP’s website, the Christie Administration is looking to help such residents offset this cost by providing funds from the federal Community Development Block Grant. Eligible homeowners could receive up to $150,000 for reconstruction and elevation of their flood-damaged homes, according to the article.

Depending on the amount of damage incurred at a given residence, the elevation revisions may not have immediate consequences. Homes that sustained less than 50% damage are not required to do anything, but are cautioned that they will likely be subject to much higher flood insurance costs if they choose not to elevate in accordance with new standards. If, on the other hand, a residence sustained more than 50% damage, the owner must elevate to the new standard plus one foot, as required by the Flood Hazard Area Control Act. Under the amended rules, property owners rebuilding to the new standards will not need to apply for a special NJDEP Flood Hazard Area permit, which should result in savings on permit fees and design costs, as well as saving the time that it would normally take for NJDEP review.

Without a doubt, many residents will view these revised elevation requirements as just the latest in a long line of headaches caused by Hurricane Sandy. The state, however, views these measures as essential to the recovery and future safety of its residents and their homes. As Commissioner Martin commented, “we must never allow ourselves to forget the scope of destruction from Sandy. It is absolutely critical that we rebuild stronger and more resilient in the aftermath of this historic storm.” Perhaps that is easier said than done for many residents, but just like the next storm, these new standards are coming whether New Jersey homeowners are ready or not.

*Photo courtesy of FEMA Region II Coastal Mapping Basics.

Adam C. Arnold is an Associate in the Gibbons Real Property & Environmental Department.
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