City hires engineering consultant to fight FEMA maps

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Flexibility available for homeowners who must renovate

OCEAN CITY — Ocean City has hired a coastal engineering consultant to work with the city engineer on proposing changes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s proposed base flood elevation maps before they are adopted.

City Council awarded a $63,960 contract to Atkins North America Inc. when it met Feb. 14.

The city had solicited proposals for the consultant after Gov. Chris Christie last month adopted the maps as a standard for the entire state. The advisory base flood elevation maps were released FEMA in December as a notice to communities, especially those affected by Hurricane Sandy, on what the agency was considering for new base flood elevations prior to the storm.

The regulations implemented by the governor establish requirements and procedures for New Jersey residents and businesses to construct, reconstruct, relocate and elevate buildings and other structures in flood hazard areas.

Ocean City officials were immediately concerned over the governor’s adoption of the maps, which the city deems flawed due to inclusion of some areas in what is known as the V zone, where 3-foot or higher waves are possible during a 100-year storm. Inclusion in this zone means higher homes and stricter building codes, often leading to more expensive renovations.

Business administrator Mike Dattilo said five bid proposals were received.

“They have been carefully reviewed and weighted against certain criteria that were in the (request for proposals),” he said. “This is a nationally recognized firm – I really should more appropriately say they are a worldwide recognized firm.”

Dattilo said Atkins has worked with and for FEMA in the past, and developed flood insurance rate maps for FEMA.

Meanwhile, homeowners whose damage is 50 percent or more of the total value of the structure are required by law to come into compliance with current building standards. To complicate matters more, in January, Ocean City Council adopted a new ordinance, referred to as base flood elevation plus 2 (BFE+2) that requires the first habitable floor of homes to be built two feet above base flood elevation.

Many who are being forced to rebuild or elevate are unsure of their options, especially due to the uncertainty of the FEMA maps, which could change when new preliminary maps are released.

According to city director of finance Frank Donato, FEMA will release the new preliminary maps in the late summer or early fall – which the governor will have the option of adopting – and begin a public hearing process. He estimated it could take more than a year before FEMA adopts new maps on which to base its flood insurance rate map.

Donato said that, at this point, the city is still supporting the BFE+2 ordinance, although it would ultimately mean higher homes across the island.

“The city thinks it’s a good idea to maintain BFE plus 2,” Donato said.

He said that when FEMA adopts the new BFE maps, the extra elevation will give homeowners the best insurance rate possible.

“That’s where you’re going to get your cheapest insurance,” he said, adding that compared with building to just base flood elevation, “You’re going to pay a good rate, but not the best rate.”

Some relief may be coming for homeowners who now find themselves in the V zone. City solicitor Dottie McCrosson said Thursday that she has been meeting with developers and architects regarding BFE+2.

“The concern is not so much on BFE plus 2,” she said. “But the combination of everything may dictate that council reconsiders just the changes to the V zone.”

She said she is hoping to have an ordinance for council’s consideration at the Feb. 28 meeting.

Donato said that homeowners in Ocean City who don’t have to rebuild right away should wait until that process is complete.

“The maps right now, the intrusiveness of the V zone, particularly on the bayside … it’s capturing people in the V zone that we don’t feel really belong in the V zone,” Donato said.

He said that this will mean an “entirely different story” for rebuilding homes than if the home was in the A zone, which has less strict building standards.

Donato said that older homes are the most difficult to elevate because pilings and concrete piers, which are more expensive and complicated to install, must replace the older block foundations.

“It really doesn’t make the project very feasible for those older homes,” he said. “We feel that at that point, the best advice, unless you have to do something immediately, wait until the next version of these maps comes out.”

With the new consultant, the city hopes to get many properties returned to the A zone.

For those who must do something, Donato said there are two options.

Option No. 1 is to rebuild to the new standards, including BFE+2.

Option No. 2 is simply do the renovation portion of the project without elevating, even if it’s at 50 percent damage, he said.

“We’re not going to force your hand to elevate right away,” Donato said.

He said that the city will work with homeowners and give them temporary certificates of occupancy until they elevate so long as they meet certain criteria: Namely, the homeowner must be applying for increased cost of compliance coverage through FEMA.

“We would want to know that that homeowner is committed toward elevating down the road,” Donato said.

To obtain ICC coverage from FEMA, which can be as much as $30,000, a letter of substantial damage from the city’s construction code officer must be supplied by the homeowner to his or her insurance agent to begin the claims process. If the ICCC coverage is obtained, the homeowner has four years to complete the renovations. For more on ICC coverage, see www.fema.gov.

Mayor Jay Gillian tackled the elevation issue in his annual budget address to council Thursday.

“It is our objective to do everything possible to work with FEMA in order to have the preliminary maps be more accurate and more realistic in terms of the threats of flooding on many parts of the island that the advisory maps have designated as the V zone,” Gillian said. “The ABFE maps are flawed and inaccurate for many parts of our community. They are, by FEMA’s own admission, based on incomplete data and analysis. We’re not in a fight with FEMA; we are going to work in partnership with FEMA toward a more complete and accurate analysis.”

He, Dattilo and other Cape May County officials met with members of the Christie administration in Trenton Tuesday, Feb. 12 to get answers on the maps.

“It was a good exchange of information, quite open, quite cordial,” Dattilo said. “I can’t tell you we learned a whole lot that we didn’t know.”

He said that he left with some reassurance that there is room for dialogue before the next round of FEMA maps are released.

“There continue to be indications that significant sources of grant funding will be available to assist owners with elevation projects and we will aggressively pursue any such funding,” Gillian said. “We’re going to have to fight for every penny we can get.

“We’re going to be working very hard to get as much money as we can to help our homeowners do whatever they need to do.”

Many questions still remain, especially for commercial buildings that the advisory maps place in the V zones.

“There’s a lot of questions remaining. We’re not alone in this,” Dattilo said. 


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