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Zoning: One size does not fit all: Disaster recovery experts must follow every law governing every municipality

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John Sartor and Marilyn Lennon examine local maps.
John Sartor and Marilyn Lennon examine local maps. - ()

When it comes to disaster response in New Jersey, demolition and remediation can be overwhelming due to the sheer chaos that ensues after a crisis.

However, search, rescue and cleanup, say disaster recovery experts, are nothing compared to the frustration they have in deciphering the differing regulations in each and every town regarding rebuilding, especially in flood zones. John Sartor, president and CEO of PS&S, said his company is well positioned to overcome the obstacles.

“In New Jersey, every municipality has its own rules for almost everything. This is especially true when it comes to zoning laws,” explained Sartor. PS&S is a Warren-based architecture, engineering and environmental consultancy.

“In other states, it’s county or state rule — one set of laws that cover several towns. In New York, for example, officials examine the project and determine which governing entity will have zoning rule. This is not the way it works in New Jersey,” Sartor said. “Here we have about 565 different sets of zoning regulations to keep up with and follow.”

But Sartor said PS&S has a former state regulatory professional on its team and is able to view all regulations appropriately and stay in compliance.

That regulatory professional would be Senior Vice President Marilyn Lennon, a former assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. While at the DEP from 2010 to 2013, Lennon recognized the woefully out-of-date flood hazard and coastal zone management rules and worked hard to upgrade land use regulations.

However, before making any lasting changes to the state’s guidance for flood zones, Superstorm Sandy hit on Oct. 29, 2012. It was then Lennon realized that even the changes the DEP was making weren’t going far enough to make a difference in the case of a major event.

Lennon had worked at PS&S from 1983 to 2000. When she rejoined in 2013, she brought with her an extraordinary level of flood zoning knowledge.

“Sandy redefined how we look at flooding events,” Lennon said. “Post Sandy, we look at flood elevation impact. Building codes have been refined to take tidal water into consideration.”

The Saffir-Simpson Scale classifies hurricanes based on wind velocity, from Category 1 to 5. However, Superstorm Sandy hit the Jersey Coast as a tropical storm, not even registering on that scale. No one even considered the storm surge risk. And that was the state’s short-sighted fatal flaw.

In the wake of Sandy, New Jersey lawmakers realized that wind is only one element of a powerful storm. Sandy was a Category 2 storm surge and consider the damage, Lennon suggested. “Our models and rules never took storm surge into account.”

Post-Sandy

In the five years since Sandy knocked many coastal counties in New Jersey for a loop, municipalities have been focused on flood elevation and building codes that take tidal water into consideration. Not only does future construction need to be built to new codes, but existing buildings (at least those that survived enough to be rehabilitated) must focus on flood zone laws.

The challenge, said Sartor, is to not only understand how New Jersey works but how the new regulations impact all aspects of every job. Now, more than ever, Sartor said he appreciates that PS&S has a unique vantage point, thanks to Lennon.

Sartor said PS&S’s highly experienced team has the ability to take on the challenge of managing energy and utilities infrastructure in the various towns. PS&S delivers services to resolve environmental remediation and demolition issues in accordance with the current regulations across many market segments including education, energy/utilities, hospitality/entertainment, infrastructure/public improvement, real estate and technology.

“We know what it means to have home rule because we’ve been working in New Jersey for 55 years. We bring in engineering and architectural professionals to find solutions for the built environment that marry up with the regulations,” Sartor said.

“There are plenty of competent firms but they are simply not used to working in New Jersey. This is a huge issue because they are not used to designing projects that can get approved here. The result? Crazy delays! PS&S understands New Jersey regulations and we design projects that are compliant and will be approved.”

PS&S has offices in Cherry Hill, Newark, Wall and Atlantic City, in addition to its Warren headquarters. The company also maintains regional offices in Yonkers and Lake Success, New York, and Caguas, Puerto Rico.

The firm has been doing work in Puerto Rico for more than 20 years. “Given the current situation there following Hurricane Maria, we remain involved and look forward to helping Puerto Rico rebuild,” Sartor said.

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