Tougher flood rules challenge post-Sandy rebuilding efforts
Published 12:20 pm, Monday, November 19, 2012
The ground floor of Tony and Penny Sousa's Marine Avenue home on Saugatuck Island likely will not remain at its current elevation for long.
About three feet of water flooded the first level of their custom-contemporary house when Hurricane Sandy struck Westport on Oct. 29.
The inundation of water ravaged the ground floor's two bedrooms, living room, bathroom and wet bar. It also claimed a number of appliances -- the first stage's air-conditioning units, furnace and water heater are all "fried," Tony Sousa said.
Two weeks later, the ground floor still is in an altered state. The drone of humidifiers hums through half-bare walls, which have been stripped of soaked sections of drywall. Tiled floors remain, but they are empty, save for a few pieces of furniture and a couple of mattresses stacked in one of the bedrooms.
During Tropical Storm Irene last year, only about six inches infiltrated the Sousas' ground level.
"This was dramatically worse and much more devastating, so this all needs to be put back together," Tony Sousa said Monday as he walked through the first floor.
The Sousas have returned home -- their upper-level living space was not damaged -- but extensive and expensive repairs loom. Because the cost of the flood damage will likely exceed 50 percent of their home's market value, the Sousas will have to raise their house several feet to the flood-protection elevation determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the 100-year floodplain in which they live. The Sousas home was built in the late 1960s, before the current FEMA flood-zone regulations were implemented in Westport.
But elevating their home will not be a straightforward procedure. Like many waterfront homes in Westport that stand on lots totaling less than a half-acre, the Sousas' house cannot surpass 26 feet in height -- and it already stands close to 26 feet high. To conform with town zoning regulations, the Sousas will need to obtain a waiver, or "variance," from the town's Zoning Board of Appeals to go beyond the 26-foot limit.
While he would like to raise his house, Tony Sousa expressed concern about the prospect of spending $15,000 to $20,000 on architectural and engineering plans for the project, with the possibility the ZBA might reject the proposal.
"The town could say, `We're not going to give you a variance because you're going to be too high,' and that's the part I'm kind of struggling with," he said. "If there was some way I could have confidence -- all I want to do is raise my house, I don't want to do anything fancy -- I just want to lift what's there. And if they'd say, `We're going to let you do that,' I'd be a lot more eager to start on that process."
Sousa's predicament reveals some of the unresolved questions facing many homeowners on Westport's shoreline. Sandy flooded 260 homes and destroyed seven in town, according to local emergency management officials. With many of those homes likely to require a higher rebuild, town zoning officials are grappling with the challenge of allowing expeditious reconstruction that meets town standards.
"We're talking about a long-term problem that's exacerbating," Planning and Zoning Commission Vice Chairman Jack Whittle said during a meeting last week. "You probably need a comprehensive long-term solution for this."
P&Z Director Larry Bradley has suggested that the P&Z could consider amending the town's measurement system to allow waterfront homes' height to start at a higher base -- a move that would mitigate the so-called "sandwiching effect" often produced by the current regulations.
"You have the flood regulations that dictate that the building would be pushed up from the ground," Bradley said. "And then you have this height limit that cuts things off at 26 feet, so you get this squeezing effect where you're pushing up from the bottom and pushing down from the top and then you get these sort of rectangular-shaped buildings."
Hank Morehouse, principal of the Westport residential design firm RBA Build, said he would also like to see more regulatory flexibility for home heights. Two homes designed by Morehouse are under construction in the Compo Beach neighborhood.
"The height restrictions can be inhibitive of people developing and build these houses," Morehouse said. "It's not an overwhelming issue now, but it may become more of a problem in the future. The whole issue needs to be looked at in more detail. It just has to take a broad open forum to come to a solution."
The P&Z last week did not commit to pursuing any changes that would affect homes in a 100-year floodplain, although several of its members indicated that they would form a subcommittee to further review the town's housing-elevation regulations.
In the meantime, zoning officials plan to schedule more hearings for variance applications for house lifts and allot more staff time for the processing of permits for other residential storm repairs, according to Bradley.
After weathering two major storms during the last 15 months, Sousa said he is keen to take preventative action ahead of the next tempest.
"This is a lot more stressful than last year," he said. "Last year, it was kind of like, `Once every 30 years, I'll probably never see another one in my lifetime again.' And now it happens the next year, and it's even worse. This could be the new normal. It's a really bad feeling and I don't want to feel it."
firstname.lastname@example.org; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott