FEMA: Friend or foe?


Map courtesy Town of Harrison
FEMA map showing tentative flood elevation levels. Maps will be updated this summer.


By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent


Ever since Hurricane Sandy pummeled the tri-state area and the rest of the East Coast, impacted residents and businesses have struggled to get back into the game.

But before they commit to a major rebuild or building anew, they’ve got to learn the new rules from the game master, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has issued “Advisory Base Flood Elevation” maps to guide property owners.

Break those rules, officials say, and owners could be forced to pay extravagant fees for flood insurance against future damage or forfeit insurance altogether.

To help owners interpret those rules, Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos is inviting them to an informational meeting Wednesday, March 13, at 6 p.m. in the council chambers at Town Hall to quiz FEMA representatives.

Changes to the state’s Flood Hazard Area Control Act, implemented after Sandy, set revised minimum elevation standards for the reconstruction of properties “substantially” damaged and for new construction of properties designated as being in flood zones.

“Substantial” damage is defined as requiring a cost of restoration equal to or more than 50% of the market value of the property.

FEMA says it will provide up to $30,000 toward the cost of raising a home or business – but only if the owners have federal flood insurance. Additionally, the state will be making available grant money to help offset the cost.

By FEMA’s rules, not all flood zones are the same, Santos noted.

A “V zone,” by FEMA’s definition, applies to properties in tidal floodplains subject to dangers associated with being exposed to storm-induced waves of at least three feet in height. That designation, according to FEMA’s draft maps, covers much of the south Kearny industrial meadows area, the mayor said.

Anyone looking to substantially rebuild a storm-damaged manufacturing plant or warehouse, for example, or undertake new construction in that zone will have to satisfy “more onerous” building standards requiring elevations 15 feet above the base flood level plus install “collapsible foundations” designed to permit storm water to run through without endangering the main structure, according to Santos.

Among Sandy’s casualties in south Kearny was River Terminal Development, 100 Central Ave., a 300-acre south Kearny industrial park with more than 5 million square feet of warehousing and distribution space, reportedly having taken as much as nine feet of water in some buildings, causing power outages and other issues, Santos said.

River Terminal’s management may now face the predicament of having to raise the elevation of distribution facility truck bays, for example, to comply with V zone building standards, the mayor suggested. And, he added, plans for new construction will also have to be matched against those requirements. River Terminal owner Rob Neu couldn’t be reached.

Residential, commercial and industrial properties east of Schuyler Ave. and certain commercial/retail properties on the west side of Passaic Ave., meanwhile, are located in what FEMA maps refer to as an “A” flood zone which, according to Santos, would require elevations of 11 feet above the base flood level.

Property owners falling into the A zone designation include:

• Carlstadt developer Ed Russo, who is preparing to go the Kearny Planning Board with revised plans for a downsized version of a residential project at Schuyler and Bergen Aves.

• Jeryl Industrial Park off the Belleville Turnpike.

• Jonathan and (brother) Mark Giordano, who are looking to convert a vacant Arlington Ave. building to a shooting range.

• Prospective developers of townhomes on Duke St. Their application was rejected last year by the Kearny Zoning Board of Adjustment but it’s being revised.

• Vornado Realty, which owns the vacant Pathmark property, has been looking for a new tenant since the supermarket closed last March.

Because the building permits for the south Kearny combined police precinct/ firehouse, now in preparation, were issued before Gov. Chris Christie’s executive order implementing the new flood elevation rules, that facility is exempt from those rules, Santos said.

FEMA isn’t expected to adopt its final elevation maps until the summer but until that happens, Kearny Town Council is taking steps to ratify the federal agency’s action. On Feb. 19 the council introduced an ordinance revising the town “Flood Damage Prevention” code to ratify the new standards and, in turn, make residents eligible for federal and state aid. If FEMA revises those rules, Kearny can amend its code to reflect those revisions, Santos said.

Still confused? Visit FEMA’s website, http://www.region- 2coastal.com/sandy/abfe to try and learn more.

In neighboring Harrison, developers in that town’s waterfront redevelopment area are also busy taking stock of the situation. Jeff Milanaik, of Heller Industrial Parks, was dealt a temporary setback by Sandy flooding the development tract but he said it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it provided time to review the elevation levels for his planned mixed-use project off Rodgers Blvd.

“It was just a matter of redesign,” Milanaik said. Two of the buildings involved in the 747-unit residential part of the project will get an additional elevation of 2.8 feet up from the base flood level, along with the retail portion, he added.

Across the street, where ground has been broken by The Pegasus Group for a new 138-room, seven-story Elements hotel, developer Richard Miller said his team essentially guessed right by planning for a 14-foot elevation above the base flood level. Pending site plan approval by the Harrison Planning Board, Miller hopes to proceed with the next phase of his residential complex by the summer and complete the 325 apartments by December 2014.

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