JERSEY CITY, NJ - In what is being called an innovative approach to expand the City’s efforts to drastically reduce pollution and promote sustainable development, a change in zoning regulations is set to shift the burden of sewer and runoff infrastructure onto new developments.

The dual-pronged approach enables properties outside designated flood zones, while requiring those within them, to incorporate green infrastructure to promote the soundest of sustainable construction and pollution reduction practices, implementing localized flooding controls, while improving overall quality of life for the community.

“We’re setting the tone for development around the state and the region by promoting green building initiatives for all projects that ultimately impacts the overall health and benefit of our community and our residents,” said Mayor Steven Fulop. “This is a cost-effective and resilient way to significantly reduce flooding along with flood-related health and safety hazards posed during storm events, while simultaneously delivering environmental benefits and incorporating more green landscaping citywide.” 

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A zoning overlay zone would designate significant areas of potential flooding, both along the Hudson River waterfront as well as the emerging waterfront along the Hackensack River on the city’s westside.

The zoning would shift the responsibility for controlling runoff and other issues that have overwhelmed the city’s aging sewer system. This comes at a time when the city and the MUA are in the middle of a massive repair of old sewer lines and expect to launch and even more aggressive $1 billion project in the near future.

The first green initiative is the Sustainability Incentive Program which introduces a multi-level approach for new and existing development to divert storm water from the sewer system by installing green infrastructure and also meeting strict energy and water conservation standards provided in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines. The Incentive Program is a voluntary option open to all public projects to earn discounts on water and sewer connection fees due to new or expanded use.

“Stormwater runoff is a major cause of water pollution in urban areas. Our approach to use green infrastructure components will not only ensure the most sustainable construction practices and serve as a model for other cities to follow, but will also reduce city costs involved in the monumental task of ultimately eliminating combined sewage discharge into local waterways,” said Jose Cunha, Executive Director of the JCMUA.

Taking the city’s sustainable approach one step further is a second initiative, the Flood Overlay Zone Program, which will require new developments in FEMA-designated flood hazard zones to incorporate green infrastructure to help control localized flooding and minimize pollution runoff into local waterways by implementing green infrastructure - such as rain gardens, green roofs, bioswales, and permeable pavement - to absorb and filter stormwater runoff and therefore avoid combined sewage overflows where domestic sewage and other wastewater overflow and pollute local waterways.

As is typical in cities, Jersey City’s current stormwater infrastructure relies on piped drainage to move rainwater away from the area, whereas green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils, and other water absorbing elements and practices to restore some of the natural processes required to manage water and create healthier urban environments. The result: an attractive aesthetic look, coupled with the environmental benefits of serving as a filter-like system, cleaning the water, and reducing harmful runoff into the sewers and local waterways. 

“Cities like ours typically struggle with flood-prone areas due to the lack of water retention capabilities, which these efforts will help solve,” said Tanya Marione, Director of the Division of City Planning. “Adding these green elements is an easy lift for developers and a no-brainer for the betterment of the city.”

“Jersey City continues to set the bar high for implementing creative solutions to various challenges that urban areas like us often face - in this case, we’re maximizing sustainable planning to combat pollution to our local land and waterways,” said Kate Lawrence, Director of the Jersey City Office of Sustainability. “These programs further our commitment to implement sustainable infrastructure and provide significant environmental benefits to the Jersey City residents for generations to come.”

Under the Incentive Program, buildings that further address stormwater will also receive additional credit for every 500 gallons of stormwater diverted from the sewers, up to a 40% total credit. That equates to a max of 20,000 gallons stormwater diverted per property. The City and MUA are partnering to install green infrastructure in a variety of public areas along streets and sidewalks with 10 locations across all six wards to begin in the first phase this year.

The LEED certification uses a point-scoring system based on how well a construction project incorporates environmentally responsible standards, and the stormwater diversion incentive calculation is based on estimated gallons of water diverted from sewers. 

Lawrence said the projects that fall within the boundary of these zones would become responsible for improving the infrastructure to mitigate the flow that would otherwise go into the city system. During Superstorm Sandy, Lawrence added, huge portions of the area designated on the flood zones maps were negatively affected and hospitals, schools and other buildings received significant damage.

The city received funding in 2015 to create a master plan and this along with other smaller plans became the foundation for this new zoning overlay.

“More than 40 percent of the city falls into FEMA’s 100-year flood plain,” she said.

The zoning map shows several layers of risk, from those parts of the city susceptible to “Wave Damage,” while other areas depicted are less susceptible. But the overlay is designed to require development within these areas to take steps to decrease the amount of water overflow.

During critical times when the system gets overburdened, the MUA is forced to dump the excess into the river. This often includes raw sewerage.

Councilman Rolando Lavarro liked the idea of shifting the onus for upgrade of infrastructure from the city to developers, but said if the city had presented this sooner, this might have had more impact on projects being constructed in the Northern end of the city near the Hoboken border.

“This was a lost opportunity,” Lavarro said. “Had this been in place, we might have gotten more out of the developers near Cole Street than just the construction of a park.”

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