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Rumson First to Raise Home Base Height Elevations in Flood Zones

Mayor Ekdahl proud of expeditious approval; some raise concerns about costs

It was meant as a means to a more expeditious end for getting Sandy-ravaged homes rebuilt and elevated in Rumson. But not everyone saw it that way.

The Borough Council last night adopted two amended ordinances: one to increase the limit on the base height elevation (BHE) standards for homes in FEMA-designated flood areas to 13 feet above sea level; and, another, that was in the works pre-Sandy, on raising the permitted height of homes from 30 to 35 feet, the building height now measured from the finished floor as opposed to existing grade.

“The reason for that is so that you don’t wind up with kind of a squished down house …” Mayor John Ekdahl explained.

The changes to the two ordinances, he and other officials added, coincidentally work in tandem with one another to, essentially, give residents who are rebuilding a timely jump on clearing insurance and permit hurdles to get the job done before winter sets in and freezes them out of building.

But, the converse mindset of some was that the ordinances’ edicts could end up raising insurance costs to potentially prohibitive heights, foisting new flood-staving standards on those who don’t really need the protection, can’t afford to rebuild and may not appreciate surrounding homes towering over theirs.

That objection was raised by Peter Engle, a Center Avenue resident and engineer who has done projects for the borough. Navesink Avenue resident and environmentalist Rick Jones raised similar concerns, including flooding that he said could be caused by elevated homes no longer blocking water rushes, which was rebuffed by officials. "No one or home is pushing the water in," Ekdahl said. "If the area is flooded, it's flooded. The water is there."

For the sake of moving rebuilding along before the New Year right now, though, approval of the adopted elevation ordinance, with concerns noted, was unanimous, with praise and thanks from residents in the audience in a rush to rebuild to a "new normal."

What it all means, said Borough Clerk Tom Rogers, is that “there are people out there who have a home that they wish to raise. If you raise your home to an elevation of 13, no matter what height your home is, you don’t have to go to the Zoning Board (for approvals to proceed). You will come into Borough Hall, it will be approved, it will be driven through and you’ll be able to raise your home. If you choose to demolish or rebuild your home, if you stay within the zoning requirements of the R-5 zone in West Park or R-4 in other areas, then you’re fine …” However, if you’re expanding your home significantly, “that’s a different ballgame,” he said.

And, Ekdahl said, Rumson is the first municipality to move forward with the boost in flood zone floor levels.  

“We felt it was really important to get residents the numbers so that they could make a decision on what they wanted to do," Rogers explained. "So we rushed through working with T&M (Associates, borough engineers) to come up with a plan and an ordinance to allow people to raise homes and also take into account whatever FEMA did.”

So, where Rumson was, until now, at a base height elevation for flood prone areas of 8 to 9 feet, 13 is now the new standard. However, should FEMA’s revised standards come in at a higher level, then the ordinance is worded to make that the new requirement number, Rogers said. FEMA has a meeting on the subject set for Dec. 10. “The rumor, on FEMA, is that it is 2 or 3 feet,” Rogers said. 

Engle and others said they thought the ordinance’s wording should read the opposite, that the requirement should be whichever number is lower (the borough’s or FEMA’s) so as to not face residents with prohibitive costs in compliant building and insurance coverage.

Insurance adjusters, he noted, tend to apply their standards to those set by applicable local governing bodies, and if those standards are higher than FEMA’s, then residents may be forced to build to those standards, be denied coverage, or both, which could end up being an overbearing fiscal burden to shoulder.

“Cliff notes” on the elevation standard ordinance, as Ekdahl dubbed them, were consolidated into a brief presentation by Borough Engineer David Marks, of T&M Associates, before the public comments section was opened.

Marks said that in arriving at the decision of setting the BHE at 13 feet above sea level, 49 homes throughout Rumson were looked at as part of the analysis of the area “from Borough Hall all the way around to the east tip of Rumson and along the north shoreline of the Shrewsbury River. Basically we tied in tidal elevations to observed flood elevations to finished first floors and finished grade elevations."

Flood levels from water surges during Sandy ranged in height from 8 to a high of 12.5 feet, he said, prompting the standard to be set to 13 feet per borough construction code ordinance, with an allowance of “12 inches above that to accommodate floor joists,” Marks said.

While the public comment section of the meeting was opened for the mandated public hearing, Ekdahl advised that it may be best for residents to attend Thursday night’s special meeting at Forrestdale School where FEMA, SBA and local construction officials will all be present together and better equipped to give comprehensive answers.

Before then, “there are going to be questions that we cannot answer,” the mayor said.

Many reserved questions for that time, but some, like Engle and Jones, commented and others spoke out and thanked officials for expediting the ordinance. If it had been held, rebuilding could be held up through winter and unfinished work could end up open to the elements and closed off to homeowners, one resident reminded.

Sal December 06, 2012 at 08:57 AM
It is nice to see one town has addressed this issue___so that people can start moving forward on their road to recovery. No one loses and everyone gains when construction standards are aligned to better match environmental conditions. Elevating new homes 13 feet off the ground on concrete stilts provides more covered parking out of the sun, rain, sleet and snow___ and lessens the chances of home breakins through windows.
Good One December 06, 2012 at 01:25 PM
@Sal - it's 13' above sea level, not 13' off the ground. It's not creating under-home, covered parking. ie, if your home is already 7' above sea level, you can raise it, presumably, the difference.

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