Stricter flood controls would mean higher homes but lower premiums

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STRATHMERE – Township committee Monday introduced an ordinance creating stricter flood controls on new construction and substantial home improvements, part of an effort to increase its rating in the National Flood Insurance Program’s Community Rating System (CRS).

A step up from Class 7 to Class 6 in the CRS could save homeowners here an additional $20,000 on their flood insurance premiums, according to officials. Qualifying Upper Township residents currently get a 15 percent discount on their flood insurance premiums because of the township’s Class 7 rating. They saved $80,000 on their premiums because of the discount, said township engineer Paul Dietrich.

In order to reach a 20 percent discount and an additional $20,000 in savings, Upper Township must implement new zoning and programs.

But some Strathmere residents question the changes, claiming they could cost homeowners more than they would save.

“An additional five percent (premium) reduction is not worth it,” said Strathmere resident Lynn Fayter, referring to requirements that new construction be a foot higher. The requirements would make new construction more expensive, she said, and homes wouldn’t be as attractive.

“You’re going to have homes with their ground floor 12 feet high,” she said.

Mayor Richard Palombo said he also had concerns that the insurance savings wouldn’t be worth added construction costs.

“There are some savings but will it ever equal out?” he said. “It might take a long time, 10 to 15 years, for someone to make up the additional cost in construction.”

The ordinance would increase new homes’ freeboard one foot above base flood elevation. In A zones in Strathmere, for instance, new homes would have to be built 12 feet high instead of 11 feet. Homes in V zones would have to be built even higher.

Any home addition would also have to abide by the new regulations.

The ordinance also lowers the requirement for substantial improvements from 50 to 40 percent, meaning owners that increase the value of their homes by more than 40 percent will have to follow the new regulations.

Homes that have suffered substantial damage of 40 percent will also have to follow the new regulations when they rebuild, said Dietrich.

The effects of Superstorm Sandy have put the need for new flood controls in stark relief, according to officials. More than 150 homes in Strathmere experienced three to five feet of flooding.

Dietrich said the flood controls weren’t written in response to Sandy, but that the new regulations will help prevent severe flooding in the future. Those who build according to the new regulations will also see more than a 20 percent discount on their flood insurance premiums, said Dietrich.

A home raised 12 feet in an A Zone would likely have insurance premiums cut in half, he said. Homeowners will also be eligible for FEMA grants to raise their homes, said Dietrich.

“The majority of people in Strathmere we’ve talked to are in favor of this,” said Dietrich.

The state will likely require stricter guidelines for coastal construction in the future as a result of Sandy, he said.

Solicitor Dan Young said Ocean City recently raised freeboard by two feet. The city is now dealing with whether to increase building height because of that, he said.

“The floors have gone up but the height has not,” he said.

But the need for stricter flood controls is clear in the wake of Sandy, he said. Older construction on the island was badly damaged by the storm’s flooding.

“Ocean City is now paying the price of substandard home design,” said Young.

Strathmere resident Ted Kingston said he was concerned that higher homes would lead to illegal conversions of ground floors.

“I’m concerned about the unintended consequences,” he said. “Once you raise a home so high you can walk underneath, they are going to go back and enclose it for habitable space.”

Dietrich said the new ordinance also requires homeowners to sign deed restrictions that they will not convert ground floors to habitable living space.

“The deed restriction gives the township more teeth if the person wants to market that room as a bedroom,” he said.

Under the ordinance, the zoning board will handle flood control variance requests. Cape May County towns have never issued such a variance, said Young.

The CRS is a voluntary incentive program that recognizes and encourages community floodplain management activities that exceed the minimum National Flood Insurance Program requirements. As a result, flood insurance premium rates are discounted to reflect the reduced flood risk resulting from the community’s actions.

Dietrich said it is important the township approve the new regulations before the end of the year. In 2013, the CRS will change and it will take two more years to get a Class 6 rating, he said.

Only eight communities in the state have achieved Class 6 ranking.

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