Strathmere residents caught in perfect storm of regulations

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PETERSBURG – Property owners in Strathmere face a man-made perfect storm as they try to recover from Hurricane Sandy.

More than 100 homeowners in Strathmere experienced flood damage as a result of the October storm, with some still not able to return. The process of rebuilding seems like it is permanently on hold because of a combination of new state-mandated flood elevations and a change in the federal flood insurance program.

 

Strathmere residents and others who live near the water in Beesleys Point and Tuckahoe raised their questions and concerns at a Saturday, Feb. 23 meeting at Township Hall with local officials and representatives from FEMA, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and the Small Business Administration (SBA).

For many, there were no clear answers.

Advisory base flood elevation maps released by FEMA and adopted by Gov. Chris Christie in January move many properties into more restrictive zones, requiring homes or businesses to be built at a higher elevation. But the maps could change, according to officials, and South Jersey communities are gearing up to fight them later this year.

Further confusing the issue, property owners here and along the entire coast aren’t sure what flood insurance premiums they will have to pay under the NFIP. Premiums could increase anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars for homes below base flood elevation, according to officials.

The Biggert-Waters Reform Act of 2012 takes effect this year. Second homeowners are losing their flood insurance subsidies and could see their premiums increase dramatically over the next four years.

Bob Durrin of the NFIP said he can’t even give estimates on what the increases could be.

“I can’t predict what a policy is going to cost you but it will be very noticeable,” he said.

Estimates will be available in the future at floodsmart.gov, Durrin said.

The end result is that many in Strathmere don’t know whether it will be cheaper to raise their homes or pay the higher insurance premiums. In the meantime, their homes are damaged or ruined.

“It will cost $60,000 to $100,000 to raise my home,” said Gerry Hoffman, who owns a home in Strathmere. “I don’t know if I can afford the new flood insurance. My taxes are going up. I feel like I’m being priced out.”

Hoffman said he will have to wait as many as two years to learn if he is eligible for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to pay for raising his home. If he pays to raise his home now, however, he will not be eligible for the grant.

“You’re stuck in a Catch-22,” said Mayor Richard Palombo.

Durrin said there were no easy answers at this point.

“You need to be focusing on yourself at this point and not focusing on the HMGP,” he said. “The highest priority for the HMGP are buyouts because the problem isn’t there anymore. It’s not clear how much money is going to be available for elevating homes. You could sit on the shelf for years before it’s funded.”

“Nobody has to do anything,” said Palombo. “You can stay put and pay the flood insurance. If you rebuild to the higher standards, however, you’re going to be fine. If you don’t, it’s a gamble.”

Strathmere resident Randy Roash said the higher flood insurance premiums and the uncertainty surrounding them are already affecting real estate at the Jersey Shore.

“This is going to hurt real estate values, sales,” he said. “People are walking away from buying a house at the shore because of the potential flood insurance.”

The message from Congress, said Durrin, is that it is no longer interested in subsidizing flood insurance along the shore anywhere in the United States.

Patrick Holloway, a FEMA representative, said the base flood maps that will determine flood insurance premiums will be preliminarily completed in the summer. Municipalities may challenge them then, he said.

“This will be the first changes to the maps in 25 to 30 years,” Holloway said. “The flood plains have changed since then. The science has changed.”

Holloway said the advisory base flood elevation maps released in January were not produced as a result of Hurricane Sandy, but they were released early after the storm to give property owners an idea of where they would need to build.

“We didn’t want you to start rebuilding according to 30-year-old data,” he said.

Palombo and township engineer Paul Dietrich said the township intends to challenge and change the base flood maps where it can. Dr. Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College, will be surveying areas on the bay in Strathmere, along Harbor Road in Beesleys Point, and along the Tuckahoe River.

But they cautioned that any changes to the maps will be minor.

“A borderline V zone property might shift,” Dietrich said.

“We will do everything we can to argue for changes based on the science,” Palombo said. “But every meeting I’ve been to, there aren’t going to be a lot of changes. FEMA is willing to work with us. Nobody is saying their maps are perfect. There will be an allowance for change, but nothing significant.”

The V or velocity zone is the area in which construction is at greatest risk from floods and waves.

In Strathmere and Whale Beach, beachfront homes in the V zone would have to be built at a 14-foot elevation to withstand a 100-year storm. Some homes on Bayview Drive would have to have a 12-foot elevation.

Most of the homes in Strathmere, which remain in the A zone, would have to build at an 11-foot elevation.

Homes have to be built a foot higher than base flood elevation because of regulations passed by the state and Upper Township.

“You will have to build to the base flood elevations plus a foot above freeboard,” Holloway said. “Whatever you see, add one foot on top.”

Holloway said that additional foot will reduce flood insurance premiums by 20 percent for homeowners.

Upper Township Committee introduced an ordinance Monday that will adopt the advisory base flood elevations. Adopting the elevations will make Upper Township eligible for HMGP grants.

The ordinance also increases building height to 35 feet in residential zones. Properties in flood hazard zones will have their height measured from the flood protection elevation. Buildings will be limited to two habitable stories above the flood protection elevation.

A second ordinance that would allow non-conforming properties to be raised without a new zoning variance is scheduled to be introduced next month.

 


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