- Proposed rules could force new construction higher in flood zones.
- Builders may have to reserve more land for stormwater management.
- A disaster aid group says the rules could make rebuilding too expensive.
New regulations could force New Jersey developers to build homes and businesses higher and reserve more land for flood-control efforts, under new environmental permitting rules likely be released by December, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
The new rules, which would affect in-land areas of the state at risk of flooding, could go into effect by mid-2023, according to the DEP.
“New Jersey has significant, serious, chronic flooding problems. … Everyone understands that New Jersey is at risk,” DEP Assistant Commissioner Vincent Mazzei said Wednesday morning in a virtual meeting with stakeholders and members of the media.
New Jersey currently does not have accurate flood risk maps for many of its vulnerable communities, said Mazzei, who heads the department’s Watershed and Land Management Division.
At least 15% of the state lies within a flood plain, he said. Yet the existing maps are inaccurate and incomplete: numerous floodplains, streams and rivers are not currently mapped, he said.
“No mapping in some areas mean people don’t know that they’re at risk,” Mazzei said.
The consequences were seen when the remnants of Hurricane Ida struck New Jersey last year. The storm dropped more than 10 inches of rain in some urban areas and killed 30 people, he said.
“It’s our opinion (at the DEP) that the mapping that we have, whether it’s state mapping or federal flood mapping, it’s not a sound methodology for … truly estimating the flood risk, especially due to climate change because of increasing precipitation,” said Mazzei. “Things are changing.”
Between 2000 and 2021, New Jersey recorded 10 “major” flood events, according to the state department.
Across the state, the probability of a 100-year flood event ― a flood level expected to happen just once per century, on average — increased by 15% between 1999 and 2021, according the state department.
In addition, the probability of such a major storm happening in the coming decades is likely to increase by 50%, because warmer climates enable more moisture to be held within the atmosphere, according to state environmental officials.
“We want to make sure that when people are designing new structures or redeveloping structures, they’re not just looking at today’s conditions, because we know that things are changing,” Mazzei said. “We can’t just look at that past data.”
The proposed rules would increase the current building height minimums about 2 feet above their current level in flood plains. That new regulations, if adopted, would place the new design flood elevation about 3.1 feet above the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 100-year flood elevation, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. The rules would not affect federal flood insurance rates, Mazzei said.
The proposed regulations also would expand the size and volume capacity of stormwater systems in many regions. The new rules would account for increasing trends in precipitation and include flood data from the past two decades. Current regulations are based on storm and rainfall data from 1999 and earlier, according the DEP.
The detailed regulations are expected to be published in December and then be formally adopted in 2023. They would apply to new construction or major reconstruction projects, not existing structures.
The state department will hold opens in a new windowanother virtual hearing on the proposed rules from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday.
Amanda Devecka-Rinear, executive director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, a group that helps people after disasters, worries the new rules could make rebuilding even harder and more costly for the state’s residents, many of whom are still displaced by damage from Hurricane Ida.
“How are people going to afford this?” Devecka-Rinear said.
Elevating homes in flood zones is not cheap, she said. Devecka-Rinear said she borrowed more than $120,000 from her parents after Superstorm Sandy to elevate her home, located on Cedar Bonnett island by the The Dorland J. Henderson Memorial Bridge, known more commonly as the Manahawkin Bay Bridge or The Causeway. The bridge connects Stafford to Long Beach Island.
Devecka-Rinear said she eventually was reimbursed through grants, but noted she needed the money upfront for elevation before she could claim the grants.
“We can’t create an unfunded mandate that’s going to screw working families in New Jersey,” she said. “If we’re going to do this, where’s the grant program? Where’s the support to help people actually be able to comply? Because the federal programs that are supposed to do that, they don’t really work effectively.”
The proposed state regulations leave questions unanswered on affordability and accessibility for residents, especially for older adults and those with mobility problems, who may have difficulty getting into elevated homes and businesses, Devecka-Rinear said.
She said she supports elevation rules, but “we just can’t make it harder for people.”
Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships as well as the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than a decade. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, email@example.com or 732-557-5701.