FEMA: Under Referendum, Existing E.J. School Must Meet Federal Flood Standards

Sep 20, 2017
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill E.J. School

In opposing plans for the Ethel A. Jacobsen School renovation and new building for the second time in three months and less than two weeks before voters in five Island municipalities decide the fate of a $18.4 million referendum on the project, the Surf City Borough Council focused on the school district’s unwavering position it doesn't have to conform to federal regulations when it comes to flood proofing the current school.

“The existing building is below elevation,” Mayor Francis Hodgson said at the Sept. 13 borough council meeting prior to the council unanimously passing a second resolution denouncing the referendum. He said the plans must conform with Federal Emergency Management Agency policy. It’s a stance he’s held from the beginning, and one he discussed in a June 7 letter to the state Department of Education in which he said “it is the opinion of Surf City town professionals, who will be involved with issuing permits and assuring compliance with the rigorous regulations in place, that this project is not exempt from FEMA requirements and building codes.”

Hodgson’s position is bolstered by a letter from Clark Brewer, the FEMA general engineer/architect who reviewed the requirements for the borough.

“I reviewed this substantial improvement with my colleagues here in FEMA Building Science, and we believe that the addition would not be considered a separate structure even with a 2-hour firewall,” Brewer wrote in his letter to the borough.

The National Flood Insurance Program, according to Brewer's letter, adopts the American Society of Civil Engineers 24-14 flood resistant design and construction standards. Chapter 1, Section 1.2 defines a substantial improvement as “any reconstruction, rehabilitation, addition, or other improvements to a structure, the cost of which equals or exceeds 50 percent of its pre-improvement market value,” he explains in the letter.

“We believe that any future ‘addition’ will still be considered part of one structure, therefore the whole building will need to be brought up to NFIP standards,” Brewer wrote.

Both Hodgson’s position, and that of FEMA, are in direct opposition to that of the district’s architect, Kenneth A. Ross.

“It was this office’s professional opinion that the proposed expansion at the Ethel A. Jacobsen School is a ‘separate’ structure separated by a rated firewall meeting the definitions per the International Building Code, and therefore not an addition; the proposed renovation of the existing school is approximately 25 percent of the replacement value of the school,” Ross wrote in a July 19 letter to the state Department of Education, answering concerns raised by Hodgson and other borough officials. “Based on the fact the building is not an addition (by definition) and the improvements are under 50 percent of the existing replacement value, the FEMA mandates are not required due to the stated exceptions.”

In a statement to The SandPaper, the New Jersey Department of Education Office of Facilities said it typically reviews school projects for the educational adequacy, not building codes.

“In this case, the determination of whether the project is one or two separate buildings and the flood issues are not within the NJDOE Office of School Facilities’ jurisdiction,” according to the statement.

Next week voters in Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City will determine the outcome of the referendum that includes expanding and renovating the E.J. School, located in Surf City, to house the district’s full student body. The district plans to sell off the LBI Grade School in Ship Bottom, and earmark money from that sale to offset the cost of expanding, and renovating the E.J. School.

During the summer, officials in Long Beach Township and Ship Bottom also passed resolutions opposing the upcoming referendum. Surf City officials are the only ones to pass two resolutions protesting the referendum.

“We vehemently oppose it,” Hodgson said.

Hodgson isn’t the only Surf City official upset with the school district’s plans. Councilman Pete Hartney, also chairman of the Surf City Land Use Board, wrote a letter expressing his concerns about the project to the mayor earlier this year, including: FEMA flood-proofing requirements, flood plain concerns and an environmental impact study that hadn’t been received as of April 2017.

In his April 26 missive, Hartney said, “Basically, Di Cara Rubino is asking the Land Use Board to trust them and rubber stamp the proposal. This is contrary to the function of the Borough of Surf City Land Use Board’s modus operantis; which is to make decisions and provide input on fact of law, and as complete as possible, fact of application. I find, in this instance, that Di Cara and by extension the Long Beach Island Consolidated District Board of Education prefer to ignore, disregard, and minimize the value, and role of the local Land Use Board. This project will have a significant impact, in many ways, on generations of residents of Surf City.”

Hodgson concurred, writing in his letter to the state that the school district rejected a number of issues without providing a clear explanation.

“The issues involved,” he said, “are major impediments that must be addressed with real solutions, and most importantly, with accurate cost estimates.”

Hodgson is referring to the initial work proposed by the school board, which originally called for a $9 million project. At over $18 million, the current plans do not account for storm drainage on a Ship Bottom easement that may need to be relocated; and which municipality would supply water to the school addition. The new school building is to be located in Ship Bottom, but the board believes Surf City will supply its water.

“Surf City will not and cannot supply water to a building located outside of the municipality,” Hodgson has repeatedly said, adding the Ocean County Department of Engineer examined the storm drain and determined it cannot be relocated and still serve the same purpose.

In 2014, then-Surf City Mayor Leonard T. Connors asked the school district to consider an offer to sell the Jacobsen school property to the borough. It went nowhere. Ship Bottom officials, who do not want to see the LBI Grade School property become residential housing, offered $4 million to purchase the school and property with the intention of keeping the building and open space. Their offer went nowhere, too.

LBI Consolidated Superintendent Peter J. Kopack has said the school board was asked in 2010 to consider consolidation of the two schools to save money. Enrollment was declining at that time but has since stabilized at about 230 students, he said. The LBI School was listed for $9.5 million in 2011 when the school district decided to merge the two schools. The price was later lowered.

“All these things they say,” Hodgson said of the school board Sept. 13 after the council unanimously reaffirmed its opposition to the referendum. “I don’t know what they’re smoking.”

Gina G. Scala


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