Modification to Structures in the Flood Zone

Several years ago, I think just after I first arrived, I raised the philosophical issue with the ZBA about how they approached plans for home expansions in the flood zone. The question revolved around the threshold at which a home improvement triggers a requirement to flood proof the home and efforts taken by many to stay under this threshold.

If someone’s improvement value hits the mystical figure of 50% of assessed value, the home needs to be elevated to be 1 foot above base flood elevation (2 feet in a velocity zone). If it stays below 50% it is allowed to expand without coming into compliance with flood zone requirements. Many property owners go to great lengths to stay below this level, removing desired elements or segmenting  home improvements over several years.

Philosophically, should the Board of Appeals be allowing the construction of additional floor space in harm’s way? Should such expansions be considered substantially more detrimental? Given, when the property owner is before the ZBA they already are seeking relief from some zoning standard, should the Board be looking for improvements that protect the neighborhood? After all, any additional floor space in the flood zone, means additional debris that could damage adjacent homes.

A couple of months ago the Board had an applicant in the flood zone in West Dennis get an approval to do significant work on his house in the flood zone. When he brought the project to the Building Commissioner it was determined that he would meet the 50% threshold and would have to elevate the structure. The applicant removed  significant portions of the project to keep the improvement value under the threshold.

It is clear that we need to provide the Board of Appeals with more information.  At least, every project should be identified as being located in, or not in, the flood zone. Providing information on assessed value and the value of the construction might also prove useful. But, this information might simply shift the paradigm from 50% to some other threshold. The value issue is a double edged sword. While knowing the existing value of  a property and the value of improvements are the only way the Board can really determine whether a proposal is consistent with the requirements of the town’s flood zoning, some might consider any board action tied to value to be biased in some form.

Chatham faced this issue within its zoning by-law itself.  They adopted a zoning amendment that establishes only non-structural uses as allowed within the flood zone.  For Dennis, the horse left the barn long ago on that concept.

However, the ZBA wields significant power over flood zone alterations with the “substantially more detrimental” determination. Yes, this discussion comes on the heels of Hurricane Sandy and the devastation in New York and New Jersey. Some might argue that this storm was far off of our shores.  Misquamicut Beach in Westerly RI. Was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. Much of its shoreline was inundated and cottage areas destroyed. A mere 100 mile shift in this storm and Dennisport would have been as exposed as the cottages along the southern Rhode Island coastline.

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