Christie’s backing of FEMA’s Shore rules raises worries

Posted: January 29, 2013

Shore houses that have been in working-class families for generations will be abandoned. Property values will spiral downward, leaving Shore towns' budgets in tatters.

That is the dire scenario painted by a growing coalition of federal, state, and local officials along the Jersey Shore after Gov. Christie's announcement last week that New Jersey would adopt the federal government's preliminary floodplain maps - which would effectively require houses along large swaths of the Shore to be elevated to protect against future storm surges.

"Whatever they're proposing has to have semblance to the real world, not just what some computer is spitting out in some crazy circumstance," said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), who represents Atlantic and Cape May Counties. "FEMA is almost condemning properties the way they're handling this. They need to get their feet on the ground in the real world."

The federal maps, which are not expected to be made final for two years, determine federal flood insurance rates, and come as scientists project rising sea levels and worsening storm patterns in years to come.

But the prospect of having to lift up homes along New Jersey's barrier islands and coastal communities - in some cases seven feet off the ground atop concrete pilings - is bucking up against the financial ability of residents to meet the new standards and fears of a wider impact.

Christie's announcement, while technically only applicable to new coastal properties or those that have suffered damage beyond 50 percent of their value, has made real a process that until last week seemed a distant possibility.

"There's a lot of folks in Atlantic County and up and down the Shore extremely concerned at where this is going," said State Sen. Jim Whelan (D., Atlantic). "These maps are drafts of preliminary maps. They are far from the final product. . . . The governor just went ahead and adopted this, and I'm saying, let's let the process of the map play itself out."

Whether the new regulations would have the economic impact portrayed by Shore officials is a point of debate.

Paul Leiser, co-owner of an Avalon real estate firm, speculated that while the governor's announcement might scare off some home buyers in the short term, he did not believe it would last.

"There have been changes made over the years to flood insurance and somehow the market adjusts," he said.

In his announcement last week, Christie acknowledged the political fallout that would come but said getting the Shore rebuilt as quickly as possible overrode individual homeowners' concerns about their flood designation.

"I get paid to decide. Some decisions are popular and some aren't," he told reporters at a firehouse in Seaside Heights.

Criticisms have largely focused on the so-called V-zones, areas designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as prone to be destroyed by waves. Traditionally those zones were limited to beachfront neighborhoods but they now include those on the bay sides of barrier islands, extending three to four blocks inland in some cases.

Brigantine Mayor Phil Guenther said that in his town, the zone had expanded from maybe a couple of hundred houses to more than 2,000, and he feared that many homeowners would not be able to afford to come into compliance - leaving the town to only the wealthy.

That is the dilemma facing John Thornton and his wife, Nancy, who moved into a Shore house in Ocean City 11 years ago imagining decades of watching their children and grandchildren playing along the beach.

"We asked my granddaughter what we should do. The options are doing nothing and dropping flood insurance and hoping we can make it through, or try to sell our house now, or biting the bullet and spending what it takes to bring it into compliance. That's what she likes," said Thornton, a 60-year-old teacher at a Philadelphia art school. "She's 12."

Contact James Osborne

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