Question remains: How high is high enough for homes in Ocean City?

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Cindy Nevitt / This home at 3108 Bay Ave. is in the process of being raised 7.5 feet on a block foundation, and towers over its neighbors, which have three steps to their front doors. Cindy Nevitt / This home at 3108 Bay Ave. is in the process of being raised 7.5 feet on a block foundation, and towers over its neighbors, which have three steps to their front doors.

OCEAN CITY – Here and there around the island, signs of the future of the Jersey Shore are beginning to appear. To see what it will look like, direct your eyes skyward.

Take, for example, the new duplex being built at 2940 West Ave. Its first floor is about 7.5 feet above ground, which is more than two feet higher than the first floor of its neighbor to the south and about 3.5 feet higher than the first floor of its neighbor to the north.

New recommendations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a new building ordinance adopted by City Council are combining to drive higher new buildings such as this, and older properties that sustained substantial damage from Sandy.

For a location such as 2940 West Ave., which is in what is called an A zone, FEMA’s advisory base flood elevation maps require the first floor of living quarters to be built to 10 feet on the North American Vertical Datum of 1988 – the benchmark used to measure tide heights and, in turn, elevation. Base flood elevation is the hypothetical height to which flood waters from a 100-year storm would rise, with a 100-year storm having a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. The NAVD88 is 15 inches higher than the NGVD29, or National Geodetic Vertical Datum of 1929, which was formerly used by FEMA in determining a property’s elevation.

“FEMA is moving the finish line midrace,” Michael McMahon of McMahon Agency said of the federal government’s recent switch from 1929 datum to 1988 datum in determining a structure’s lowest elevated floor. “If you were at 10.8 feet, you have to subtract 1.3 feet, and now you’re at 9.5 feet. In a V13 zone, that would put you 3.5 below base flood elevation.”

Since new construction in Ocean City is also subject to the city’s base flood elevation plus 2 feet ordinance, which City Council unanimously adopted in January days before New Jersey Gov. Christie adopted FEMA’s advisory maps as law for the state, the first floor of the duplex at 2940 West Ave. must be built 12 feet above mean low water to comply with both the federal and the local requirements.

A foundation pile in the front yard of 2940 West Ave. is marked “10 (29)” and a blue ribbon is tied 4.75 feet above ground level, indicating where 10 feet above mean low water, using 1929 NGVD datum, lies. To convert from 1929 to 1988 datum, 1.3 feet is added to the height. Another two feet must be added to satisfy Ocean City’s BFE+2 requirement. That means the first habitable floor of the duplex should be about 8 feet above ground in order to satisfy both local and federal requirements.

With the state’s adoption of FEMA’s advisory maps, base flood elevation now varies by location, and in many instances, homes that are built side-by-side have received two different ABFE ratings. For the home at 3108 Bay Ave., which is located in an A zone and has been raised 7.5 feet above ground, the ABFE is 10 feet NAVD88. If that home was damaged in excess of 50 percent of its assessed value, it must be raised another two feet to comply with Ocean City’s BFE+2 ordinance. In other words, its first habitable floor must be 12 feet above mean low water.

The NAVD88 marker on a utility pole at the street is attached 5.75 feet from the ground, putting the elevation of the land in the area at approximately 4.25 feet above mean low water. To satisfy local and state requirements, when the home is done being raised, the front door should be 7.75 feet above ground.

For homes in V zones, where 3-foot waves could be experienced in a 100-year storm, the ABFE is as high as 13 feet for the bottom of the joists – on which the first floor sits about a foot higher – not the first habitable floor, as is the case in A zones. Currently, the city’s BFE+2 ordinance applies in V zones, although council will consider exempting V zone properties from BFE+2 compliance. Ocean City’s emergency management coordinator Frank Donato said “it’s overkill” to require such homes be built as much as 16 feet above mean low water.

Reading your elevation certificate

If damage to a structure exceeded 50 percent of its assessed value and a bank holds your mortgage, or if you are building new construction, state law requires the owner to raise their home to current code.

To understand how high a property must be raised, two numbers are need: the ABFE, which can be found on FEMA’s website at www.region2coastal.com/sandy/table, and the number on the building’s elevation certificate.

On the elevation certificate, if it is in 1929 datum, subtract 1.3 feet. Then subtract the elevation from the ABFE to learn how much higher the building needs to be. Add two feet for Ocean City’s BFE+2 ordinance.

The equation will be complicated if for those who live in a V zone because the property’s height will be determined by the joists beneath the building, not the first habitable floor. This generally adds another foot to the equation.

Steve Kelly, an Ocean City-based land surveyor for 36 years, cautions against trying to use simple math to calculate the elevation of any property using an old certificate, which can be procured through the agency that services the flood insurance policy or by filing an Open Public Records Act request with the City Clerk. Instead, he advises obtaining a new elevation certificate based on the GPS Virtual Reference Station system, which he said is the most reliable method for producing precise measurements.

“By getting an old elevation certificate, you may not be getting correct information,” he said. “You really can’t believe what you read on a certificate, because your certificate in the past was based on PK nails in telephone poles placed there by individual surveyors. They’re at all different heights, and they’re not accurate.”

The variations in the heights of the nails could be caused by surveyors using different monuments, or using an established monument that has been reset between readings, Kelly said. As an example, Steve Hafner, assistant director of the Coastal Research Center at The Richard Stockton State College of New Jersey, said some surveyors in Cape May are tying their readings to a mark set by the Army Corps of Engineers instead of the established monument used previously.

Kelly’s point about the inconsistency of surveyor readings is as easy to prove as looking at some utility poles. The pole at the corner of Somerset and Oxford lanes in Merion Park, for example, has three nails driven into it, two Parker-Kalon nails with indentations in the middle of their heads, another a nail driven through a folded piece of plastic. One of the PK nails, 5 feet, 1.5 inches above the ground, holds a metal disk stamped “NGVD29 EL 10 Ocean City” to the pole. If the nail were affixed to the pole using NAVD88 datum, it would be 15 inches higher, at a height of 6 feet, 4.5 inches.

In either datum, that indicates a low-lying area, said Kelly, adding that the higher the nail is located on the pole, the lower the elevation of the ground in that area. In the city’s lowest-lying areas, like Merion Park and Ocean City Homes, many utility poles are studded with nails head high. Conversely, the closer to the ground the PK nail is driven into the pole, the higher the elevation in that area. A nail a foot above ground would indicate an elevation of 9 feet.

Kelly also advises downloading FEMA’s online Elevation Certificate and Instructions manual for a deeper understanding of the process that is used to determine a property’s elevation. The last three pages of the 25-page document for 2013 show various diagrams that illustrate the point from which a structure’s lowest floor elevation is measured, depending upon the zone in which the building is located.

Everyone will pay

Because the National Flood Insurance Program, under the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012, is transitioning from one that is federally subsidized to one that requires homeowners to assume the actual risk of their property being flooded, flood insurance premiums will increase for everyone.

The price of not raising your home could be hefty: Homeowners who opt not to raise their homes in compliance with FEMA’s flood insurance rate maps, where their first habitable floor would remain several feet below BFE, could be charged as much as $30,000 in annual premiums.

Premium increases of 25 percent will begin in August on commercial properties and severely damaged properties and will continue to increase at that rate until the NFIP is able to fund future disaster claims without taxpayer assistance.

On Jan. 1, 2014, FEMA will begin phasing in premium increases for other properties, which Bill McMahon of McMahon Agency has estimated to be at least 10 percent. Homeowners whose properties sustained no damage during Sandy, but who wish to avoid significant premium increases because their properties are below BFE will need to raise their homes, too, he said.

And according to current city code, anyone who elevates must meet the two feet above base flood elevation regulation, regardless of the reason.

“You have to elevate to BFE+2 no matter what,” Donato said. “A lot of builders are under the mistaken impression you only have to elevate if you had substantial damage. But whether you are proactively elevating to avoid a future storm or voluntarily elevating to avoid high floor insurance premiums, you have to meet the advisory base flood elevation and BFE+2.”

The upside to that, Donato said, is that homeowners who elevate above base flood elevation will pay the lowest flood insurance premiums.

“What I see is a very difficult time,” said Kelly, who has been doing as many as five surveys a day between Toms River and Cape May. “From the people I talk to, FEMA is not making it easy, not cutting through the red tape.

“I think it’s only going to get worse. Anytime you have an outlay like that, $60 billion for Katrina and now this, the government is not going to lose the money. It’s going to get it back either through more cautious elevation or through higher flood insurance premiums.

“It makes it tough for everybody.”

RELATED STORY: Ocean City skyline changing post-Sandy

Cindy Nevitt / The first floor of new construction going up at 2940 West Ave. is 92 inches above ground. Cindy Nevitt / The first floor of new construction going up at 2940 West Ave. is 92 inches above ground.

Cindy Nevitt / This utility pole at 3108 Bay Ave. shows how the 10-foot elevation mark has moved 15 inches with the change from 1929 datum to 1988 datum. Cindy Nevitt / This utility pole at 3108 Bay Ave. shows how the 10-foot elevation mark has moved 15 inches with the change from 1929 datum to 1988 datum.

Cindy Nevitt / Elevation markers on utility poles can vary depending upon the monument used to take the measure. This pole at the corner of Oxford and Somerset lanes in Merion Park bears three different marks from three different surveyors, with the mark closest to the reflector on the right reading “NGVD29 EL 10 Ocean City.” Cindy Nevitt / Elevation markers on utility poles can vary depending upon the monument used to take the measure. This pole at the corner of Oxford and Somerset lanes in Merion Park bears three different marks from three different surveyors, with the mark closest to the reflector on the right reading “NGVD29 EL 10 Ocean City.”


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