NJ Flood Zone Building Rules Conflict with FEMA

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The pace of construction is picking up at the Jersey Shore as more homeowners receive funding to repair or rebuild their Sandy-damaged homes.  But federal officials and flood insurance experts are worried that New Jersey has not adopted the same construction standards required by FEMA.

That could lead to insurance penalties down the road, problems when homeowners sell their houses and instances of people not being as safe as they should be in future storms.

“They could be spending money on a retrofit of a structure that would be noncompliant, and that’s going to cost them money over the long haul,” said John Miller of the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management.  Insurance premiums could rise, he said, and residents who rebuild incorrectly might have to spend substantially more to fix those problems at a later date.

The rules in New Jersey’s Flood Hazard Area Control Act fail to distinguish between building requirements in different types of flood zones, permit houses to be designed to take on water during a flood and measure a home’s elevation differently.

These inconsistencies could make managing the recovery process complicated and confusing for some local officials, who often wear multiple hats and find themselves overwhelmed in the aftermath of an event like Sandy. And that could cause trouble for homeowners.

“I think what we’re talking about here is really almost like minutiae,” said  NJ Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna. “It’s significant, but at the same time, it’s not the end of the world.”

When conflicts exist, Hajna said,  most construction officials understand that the highest standard always prevails.

 “We’re confident that people are building to the appropriate elevations,” he added.

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency fears that asking local officials to compare various sets of rules and determine which one to follow will inevitably cause problems. Last December, they sent a letter to the state, threatening harsh penalties if the inconsistencies aren’t fixed. These could range from probation – which would add a $50 surcharge to each resident’s flood insurance policy – to suspension from the National Flood Insurance Program, which would make federal flood insurance unavailable and also limit some forms of federal disaster assistance.

In their response to FEMA, state officials continued to argue that with two sets of rules, New Jersey is not technically out of compliance.  But under pressure, they agreed to review their regulations to ensure consistency.

Five months later, the state has yet to make the requested corrections.