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After Sandy, rebuilding rules are eased

Nick Moligano helps a cleanup crew remove debris

Nick Moligano helps a cleanup crew remove debris from a neighbor's house on East Shore Road in Lindenhurst. (Nov. 14, 2012) Credit: David Pokress

Three towns battered by superstorm Sandy are cutting a break to South Shore homeowners seeking to raise and rebuild their homes, waiving permit fees or zoning requirements.

In Babylon Town, for example, homeowners rebuilding or seeking to raise homes to meet federal flood-zone elevation requirements will not be required to get a new survey, submit plans or pay any fees, provided the structure stays within the former home's footprint and dimensions.

"There will be no fees at all required for homeowners for any Sandy-related construction for the same rebuild," Supervisor Richard Schaffer said.

In flood plains, the town will exempt homeowners seeking to elevate from having to get a height variance. The variance will be automatically granted as long as the elevation meets the location's federal base flood-elevation requirements and the residence's dimensions are the same as those before the storm.

Hempstead and Islip towns and the Village of Lindenhurst are making similar allowances. Because building and zoning regulations differ by town and village, homeowners need to check with their local departments.

In one of the first moves formalizing benefits for those seeking to rebuild, Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci this week issued an order that effectively grandfathers in "nonconforming properties," waiving the need for a zoning board hearing as long as owners rebuild in the structure's original footprint.

Nonconforming properties typically are those built before current codes existed and certified before Sandy struck. In some cases, setbacks or separations from neighboring properties did not meet code.

Federal flood regulations require that any home needing substantial rebuilding must meet set elevations. That could put an owner seeking to rebuild the same-height house in conflict with height limits under town zoning regulations.

In Islip, the owner still will have to seek zoning board approval to exceed maximum height restrictions, Planning Commissioner Dave Genaway said. The town will waive the $200 building permit filing fee for storm-damaged homes, but owners will be required to pay a closeout fee after construction is completed. Electrical certificates and standards of work will remain to ensure maximum safety standards.

"Our families, friends and neighbors are reeling under the strain of having to repair their homes while navigating the paperwork and bureaucracy associated with insurance claims and with FEMA," Croci said.

Genaway said the order would apply to all homes damaged in Sandy and those where homeowners were seeking to raise homes as a result. An estimated 904 property owners townwide were affected -- 95 percent were homes that flooded and may be candidates for elevation under flood protection measures; the remainder involved properties that were severely damaged and need complete rebuilding, Genaway said. About 154 of them are on Fire Island.

In Hempstead, the town's building department will waive all permit fees for "in-kind, storm-related structural repairs and temporary housing trailers," Councilman Anthony Santino wrote residents last week.

The town will not require variances for those wishing to rebuild "in-kind" homes with increased base elevation to meet federal flood standards, Santino said.

Lindenhurst Village, too, is waiving application and building permit fees if residents rebuild within the original footprint.

Experts warn that simply rebuilding without raising structures and taking other flood mitigation steps could jeopardize government funding.

"Federal Emergency Management Agency and New York State flood-plain officials continue to work with local municipalities on recovery efforts to ensure they rebuild smarter and stronger," FEMA spokesman Don Caetano said.

A former top FEMA lawyer said safety is the top priority.

"We need to rebuild higher so homeowners are safer," said Ernest Abbott, who now advises local governments and nonprofits on FEMA regulations. "We shouldn't be rebuilding so they're just as likely to be flooded as before."

John Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, said local and federal officials must work together to meet federal requirements in order to quickly secure reconstruction funds. "To fail to do so not only jeopardizes federal reimbursement monies but can also place such properties at risk of being unable to obtain affordable flood insurance, if at all," he said.

Building permit and certificate of occupancy fees in Babylon Town range from $45 to $639 or more, depending on construction costs. For a period of six months starting last week, the town is waiving the requirement that barrier beach building permits be reviewed by the town board.

With Newsday reporters Denise M. Bonilla and Joe Ryan

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