City Council voted unanimously Thursday to raise required first-floor elevations for new or substantially renovated homes in Ocean City.
Council gave final approval to a revised ordinance (see attached PDF for full text) that requires Ocean City homes to be built two feet above the level of a hypothetical 100-year flood (base flood elevation, or BFE).
Ocean City's new "BFE +2" ordinance is, in essence, a minor revision to an existing "BFE +1" ordinance. It raises the first floor of Ocean City homes by a foot. With higher first floors, the proposed ordinance allows for higher roof peaks and greater roof pitches. And maximum building heights are measured from BFE +2 (also known as zoning flood elevation), instead of the centerline of the street.
The new ordinance provides one piece of the puzzle for homeowners like Lauren Perkins, who lives on the 5400 block of West Avenue in Ocean City and is wondering if she'll be required to raise her home as part flood damage repairs from Superstorm Sandy.
"Nobody has an answer, and they're urging us to wait," Perkins told City Council during public comment.
Perkins is anxious to have the work done, but she wants first to know what work will be required.
"We're caught in this time thing where nobody has clarification," she said.
For existing homeowners, such as Perkins, the following considerations will apply:
- State building code requires any home undergoing repairs, reconstruction or renovation that costs more than 50 percent of the assessed value of the structure (not including the land value) to meet the new base flood elevation requirements.
- Base flood elevations (the height of that theoretic 100-year storm) are determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which recently released a revised map of "Advisory Base Flood Elevations" (search for ABFE by address in Ocean City). The FEMA map determines the baseline that architects must work from in adding two feet to meet Ocean City's requirement. The "advisory" map is not final, but Council President Michael Allegretto reported Thursday that he had attended a FEMA workshop that indicated the preliminary map is "conservative" — in other words, if it changes, the heights would likely get lower. If homeowners were to elevate homes to meet the ABFE map plus two feet, they would be conservatively above the eventual required height.
- The ABFE map also designates "V" Zones (velocity zones) where required elevations are higher in areas of the island likely to be affected by waves. The final BFE map will likely have smaller "V" Zones (by the same logic that the preliminary map is "conservative).
- Homeowners who choose to complete piecemeal repairs over the years ("creeping improvements," they were called on Thursday) to avoid the 50-percent requirement would succeed in finding a loophole to avoid elevating a home.
- Homeowners who choose not to lift homes to meet BFE requirements will see future flood insurance premium increases of 25 percent per year until the National Flood Insurance Program collects enough money to fully fund claims in a future disaster without relying on taxpayer subsidies.
- Homeowners who elevate their homes will see discounted flood insurance premiums.
- The revised ordinance (along with number of other factors) may help determine a lower flood insurance rating (Community Rating System, or CRS) for Ocean City as a whole.
Like Perkins, architect and consulting engineeer Michael Hyland urged City Council to act quickly. He also said it's almost imperative to honor the Advisory Base Flood Elevations.
"I've got to design buildings today," he said.
Council members responded to the call for urgency.
"I don't want people to be handcuffed by what we do here," Councilman Antwan McClellan said. "I think we should move forward."
"These recommendations came long before Sandy," said Councilman Scott Ping, who was representative to the Planning Board when the base flood elevation proposal was first drafted. "People are wanting to build."
Councilman Michael DeVlieger supported the revised ordinance but urged City Council to consider a future ordinance that would potentially exempt the Historic District homes from the requirements.
The homes in the district are close to base flood elevation already, DeVlieger said, and elevating the homes could be impossible or impractical.
Council agreed to send the concerns to the Planning Board for a recommendation on a potential new ordinance.
The first reading of the "BFE +2" ordinance passed in a 6-1 vote at the council meeting on Nov. 29.
The ordinance had been drafted and considered by the Planning Board before Superstorm Sandy struck on Oct. 29. In some cases (such as when floor joists are parallel to the ocean and square to incoming waves in high-hazard flood zones, FEMA's "V" Zones), the habitable space must be three feet above BFE.
The new rules would put structures such as floor joists a foot or two above BFE.
Information on the new elevations is included in the following resources:
- Advisory Base Flood Elevations in New Jersey
- Advisory Base Flood Elevation (ABFE) Frequently Asked Questions
- Changes in the Flood Insurance Program: Early Considerations for Rebuilding