By JOHN T. WARD
Rumson became the first town on the Green to change its building standards in the wake of Hurricane Sandy when it boosted minimum first-floor levels in flood zones Tuesday night.
After storm-driven tides sent surges as high as 12 feet into homes along the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers, the borough council approved a zoning change that sets a new minimum level of 13 feet above base flood elevations in waterfront zones, replacing minimums of eight, nine and 10 feet.
The changes, and a pledge to revisit the ordinance after the Federal Emergency Management Administration issues new elevation guidelines, expected within the next two weeks, mostly drew praise from residents who said their efforts to resolve insurance claims and rebuild their homes would have been stalled by inaction.
“People need to tell their insurance companies” what the Rumson standard is “so they can decide whether to stay and rebuild, raise their homes or move,” said borough Administrator Tom Rogers. “We’re trying to help them.”
“We wanted to be the first town out there” with new flood-prevention regulations, said Mayor John Ekdahl.
The new flood level follows a survey by borough Engineer David Marks, of T&M Associates, of 49 Rumson homes damaged by flooding. He found water levels cresting at heights of 8 to 12.5 feet, he reported.
The amendment actually calls for finished first floors of 13 feet above base flood elevations or the FEMA standard, whichever is higher. But several residents noted that the FEMA regs could come in below 13 feet. Because insurers apply the local standard, owners of homes that meet the lower FEMA standard but not Rumson’s could find themselves paying vastly higher insurance rates, if they can obtain coverage, said Peter Engle, an engineer who lives on Center Street.
“If we’re setting 13 feet and FEMA comes in substantially lower, there may be a number of homes that will have dramatically higher insurance rates,” said Engle. “I think we want to be careful. There’s no magic to 13, and we may cause a lot of people to pay a lot more in insurance.”
After some discussion, council members agreed to re-evaluate the ordinance as soon as the FEMA standard is announced. Meantime, Tom Mullens, of Wilson Circle, and several other residents thanked the governing body for not leaving them hanging for another month in homes whose insulation had to be ripped out because of water damage..
Officials said that homeowners in the flood zones who wish to raise their homes will get expedited treatment in the approval process, as long as they are not expanding the footprints on their property or worsening an existing case of non-compliance.
Other residents raised questions about the effect of the change on grading an drainage of properties. Joanne Molnar, of Waterman Avenue, said a retaining wall that “holds the integrity of my house” had been destroyed, and elevating her home would impact the grading of her property and the height of the wall.
“The contents of Sea Bright basically slammed into my back yard,” she said.
She and others were encouraged to attend an information session at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Forrestdale School, where FEMA representatives will be joined by Small Business Administration officials and the borough building inspector to field inquiries.
The flood-elevation amendment was accompanied by new overall height limits on structures throughout town, a change that was in the works two months before Sandy hit on October 29 and was triggered by concerns about seasonal groundwater levels, not tidal issues, Rogers said.
Homes will now be permitted to rise as high as 35 and 40 feet, depending on the zones they’re in. Steeper roof slopes are also permitted than in the past.