South Shore homeowners leave first floors empty to meet flood requirements after Sandy

Dorothy Benjamin in front of her house in Dorothy Benjamin in front of her house in Amity Harbor on Thursday, June 26, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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Some South Shore homeowners who are still recovering from superstorm Sandy may have found an alternative to elevating their homes: building up.

Town of Babylon officials recently approved the first application to build an additional floor on top of the first floor, which would then be "abandoned" and not used for living space.

Unlike the 108 elevation requests approved since the October 2012 storm, this approach doesn't require actually elevating the house. Residents living within the flood plain who received substantial damage from Sandy must elevate their houses to meet federal height requirements or face a substantial flood insurance increase each year.

But federal requirements also allow homeowners to "abandon" their first floor and either live on an existing second floor or "build up" as long as the abandoned floor meets certain criteria, such as having flood vents, no utilities and no materials that could become waterlogged, such as drywall.

"It really does depend on the design of the house," said Babylon Town principal planner Jeanmarie Buffett. "We're probably going to start seeing other ways of approaching this. Whatever works for the homeowner and meets code, we're open to working with them."

The homeowner approved by the town, Dorothy Benjamin of Amity Harbor, said she has a stone foundation and initial estimates from contractors indicated it would be too expensive to elevate.

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"There's no way you could really lift it, and I wanted to stay on the same site plan," she said.

Experts said building up probably would not work for many South Shore homes, which are usually wood-frame houses built on peat-like soil that could not handle the additional weight.

"A lot of them are not capable of sustaining the additional load on top," said Lindenhurst Village building inspector Thomas Maher. He said the village recently got its first buildup request.

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But for those homes with cement slab foundations on good soil, building up could be cheaper and less problematic than elevating. Elevating a wood frame home can cost $120,000 to $170,000, contractors said. Add in the additional equipment and work for doing the same for a stone foundation house such as Benjamin's, and the job could run an additional $40,000 to $50,000, they said.

Contractor Daniel Burko said he's started work on his first buildup. Pat Cappolla, 43, of Lindenhurst, will abandon a finished basement that has bedrooms for two of his four children and will build a third floor to his ranch-style home.

"The least intrusive path would be to put a second level on the house rather than lift it," Cappolla said.

Burko said building up instead of lifting a home means that "as long as the structure is OK, you can still live in the house. There's much less destruction."

Benjamin, who said her flood insurance has already increased because her home isn't elevated, said she's eager to get started. "It's been an ordeal, but there's now a light at the end of the tunnel."

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