Three months after Superstorm Sandy devastated the East Coast, 20 to 30 homes in the Noroton Bay neighborhood remain in dire straits, and residents are asking town officials to help them get back on their feet.
So the Planning & Zoning Commission decided to propose a few zoning regulation changes that would apply only to Bay residents, including raising the maximum height of a home from 30 feet to 33 feet above grade.
But many residents expressed concern that the new plan was not based on compliance with new Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, regulations, which, beginning on July 8, 2013, will require the bottom dwelling floor of a home be at least 14 feet above the mean high tide level. That height is currently set at 11 feet, and many homes that were built before FEMA regulations were enacted are currently less than 11 feet from the ground. FEMA bases its estimations on the 100 year flood level, which has increased due to rising seas.
Fred Conze, P&Z Chairman, warned those attending the public hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 26, at Town Hall, that the proposed max height increase should not be seen as “some opportunistic endeavor” by residents to build bigger homes without the need to.
“We don’t want people to raise a bunch of houses that could affect the integrity of neighborhood,” Conze said.
But Frank Maturo, a resident of Baywater Drive, told the commission that they have already been dragging their feet on helping the neighborhood rebuild and the proposed changes, while commendable, didn’t go far enough.
“I’ve got space heaters all over the house,” Maturo said. “We’re freezing… We need architects, we need approvals and we need to get going.”
“Noroton Bay is going to change dramatically over the next 12 to 18 months,” he added.
Wilder Gleason, a Darien resident and attorney who is often seen representing homeowners at P&Z hearings, said the commissioners should consider using a system that was relative to the homes’ elevations rather than an absolute height, as currently proposed.
“Keep the height at 30 feet for houses that are not going to conform the FEMA,” Gleason suggested. “The whole purpose of this relief is to make sure people conform to FEMA.”
Darien is also one of the only towns in the region that requires new homes be built one foot above the FEMA minimum, Gleason said. When the new FEMA regulations go into effect, that will mean new homes would have to be built 15 feet above mean high tide, unless commissioners change the town ordinance.
Gleason suggested Darien follow a change that was recently passed in Westport, which grants an additional five feet of building height to homeowners in shoreline areas, allowing them to go from 26 feet to 31 feet. However, Westport was considering the average difference between the average-grade elevations and base-flood elevations, whereas Darien is proposing a blanket maximum height.
“I think the Westport approach works within your existing regulations,” Gleason said. “Have it in effect in the next few months so the Bay can rebuild.”
Mayflower Lane resident Peter Sikora argued that the 30-foot max height could be kept if the commissioners used Gleason’s suggestion to mirror Westport.
In a phone interview after the meeting, Gary Greene, chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, reiterated a statement read at the meeting prepared by his board, which cautioned against raising the maximum height.
“Historically, we have been very reluctant to grant any height variances anywhere within Darien,” Greene told The Darien Times. “In my experience, a change of regulation as being proposed by FEMA [regulations] would provide the type of hardship what would in some cases justify a variance.”
Greene said he didn’t want to suggest different zoning changes, as that is up to P&Z, but he said his board has taken up additional meetings to meet the rising demand for variances brought by residents hit by Sandy.
But homeowner Maturo expressed frustration that more needs to happen.
“These changes are extremely important, and extremely important to have it quickly,” he said. “We want to build attractive houses… it’s going to have to change.”
Maturo said Noroton Bay residents are having to make the difficult choice of whether to rebuild their homes or sell for the land value and take a loss. Some have already sold, as evident in recent property transfers.
Proposed changes also include exempting the first six inches of eaves and up to 20 square feet of stair landing and stoop overhangs from building coverage in the residential zone. Darien regulations restrict a home from covering more than 20% of its lot. Everyone who spoke at the public hearing agreed that eves and stoop exemption was reasonable, and some argued for up to 18 inches of eaves to be exempt.
Zoning regulations also don’t give credit for more than one foot of fill, and many homes use fill to prevent an awkward appearance, some speakers said. However, it can also create more velocity for flood waters which then go around the mounds created by fill, Gleason warned.
Some urged commissioners to consider making the changes for all coastal Darien communities. P&Z chose the Noroton Bay area, which has 76 homes, because most of the homes are older and sit on small lots, said Jeremy Ginsberg, director of the Planning & Zoning Department.
At the Tuesday meeting, there were nine applications in front of P&Z, all related to flood mitigation projects proposed by residents hurt by Sandy. An agent for one resident, Neil Foster, said his client’s family has been walking on plywood laid across open floor joists on his bottom floor while he awaits P&Z approval to raise and renovate his home.
Gleason urged the commission to act quickly.
“This relief needs to happen soon,” he said. “We don’t have time to [continue debating], these people need relief now.”
Citing the need to allow as many people to weigh in on the change as possible, the commission continued the public hearing to Tuesday, March 5.