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South Shore communities ban open foundations on raised homes

The front of an elevated home in Lindenhurst

The front of an elevated home in Lindenhurst on Sunday, June 21, 2015. Credit: Steve Pfost

Five South Shore villages and the Town of Babylon -- home to a total of 213,000 people -- have banned open foundations on elevated homes in certain areas where thousands of residences were damaged in superstorm Sandy.

The municipalities said they enacted the bans for two reasons: to try to force New York Rising to continue to fully reimburse homeowners who want a closed foundation, and residents' desire to preserve the traditional look of their communities.

"This legislation will allow families to continue to rebuild from the effects of superstorm Sandy without sacrificing the historic neighborhood feel of our waterfront communities," Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer said. "This is a common-sense step that allows homeowners to preserve the character of their homes and, in turn, our communities as we rebuild stronger and more resilient."

The object of controversy is the open-foundation design, a style typically used in waterfront communities. These homes are supported by wooden pilings or concrete pillars to allow floodwaters to pass beneath them easily, so what would have been the ground floor is not enclosed as living space or for other use. The area below the house is so spacious that it often is used as a carport.

Residences with closed foundations are elevated, too, but the perimeter of the structure below the first floor is covered by a wall, vented to allow floodwaters to pass. The buildings have open space beneath them but more closely resemble conventional houses from the exterior.

Babylon Village, with a July 14 vote, became the latest to adopt a law banning construction of the open-foundation design in certain areas. The Town of Babylon passed its ordinance on July 7. Villages that have approved similar local laws since May are Freeport, Amityville, Island Park and Lindenhurst.

NY Rising, the state agency distributing billions in federal funds to victims of the Oct. 29, 2012, storm, changed its policy in December to say it would reimburse only the cost of 20 percent of a structure's perimeter. Previously, the agency reimbursed the cost of the entire perimeter.

Under Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations, elevation is required for homes in the 100-year floodplain that were "substantially damaged" -- that is, the damage was more than 50 percent of the home's pre-storm market value -- and that have received money through NY Rising's repair and reconstruction programs.

NY Rising helps pay

NY Rising helps homeowners paying for mandatory elevation and those for whom elevation is optional, such as for homes in the 100-year floodplain that were not substantially damaged.

The agency's change in reimbursement policy pertains to homes located in what FEMA has designated as "AE" flood zones. Homes in those zones are within the 100-year floodplain -- defined as an area having a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year -- but are not directly on the water. They are less likely to suffer structural damage from direct wave action.

NY Rising could not say how many homeowners are affected by the policy change. Those who had submitted design plans in the application and rebuilding process before the change was announced in December were grandfathered in and may receive full funding for closed foundations.

As of this month, 1,191 Nassau and Suffolk residents were being required to elevate their homes, a NY Rising spokeswoman said. Another 3,133 decided to opt into the program, state officials said. The average reimbursement for Nassau homes is $116,052, and for Suffolk homes is $106,390. The reimbursement maximum for a house, including the cost of elevation, is $400,000.

NY Rising officials did not answer specifically whether the agency will abide by local ordinances that ban open foundations in AE zones. They said the decision is a sound policy change, good economics and a move that makes homes resilient -- which is the goal behind the funding.

"When the program was being designed, NY Rising looked to the codes in place at that time to develop its policies and procedures," the agency said in a statement. "This results in a fair, more cost-effective program for equitably distributing the limited funding for unmet need in all disaster-impacted counties."

Further, the statement called open foundations "an effective way" to make homes in the floodplain more resilient, and said, "NY Rising historically does not provide additional funding for purely aesthetic reasons."

At the same time, however, the agency's new provision instructs design professionals to create foundations that meet minimum local code standards.

Homeowner cites climate

The change outraged Laura and Hugh Mason of Bellmore, who got 4 feet of water in their home when Sandy struck, and planned to rebuild with a closed foundation. Open foundations, they said, are better suited for such locales as North Carolina's Outer Banks or the Florida Keys.

The design can leave critical components of homes, such as pipes and electrical infrastructure, susceptible to the effects of cold and snow, Laura Mason said. "We don't live in an area where the open foundations make sense," she said. "We're not in a climate that's warm and sunny most of the year . . . and none of the houses here [in the neighborhood] are built that way."

After extended negotiation with NY Rising caseworkers, the Masons' home was grandfathered in. They expect to be reimbursed for the closed foundation.

In Freeport -- the first to pass a local law against open foundations -- superintendent of buildings Joseph Madigan said closed foundations are better for homes away from the shoreline.

"We don't approve of the open design foundation," said Madigan, who also is the village's floodplain manager and mitigation coordinator.

Houses in what FEMA calls "V" zones, where waves whipped up by a storm can clear bulkheads and crash into residences, clearly require open foundations to allow water to easily pass beneath the structures, he said.

Freeport's law reads: "Various on-site structures and uses within the development shall be harmonious and in scale to one another and with the neighborhood. No open design foundation system will be permitted for residential structures within an AE flood zone. Open design foundation systems shall only be permitted in FEMA-designated V (Velocity) zones."

The issue came to a head a year after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo held a news conference at the home of Freeport resident Daniel Ehrick to announce the release of funds for home elevation. That infusion of $300 million was a lifeline for more than 6,000 Sandy-damaged homes.

Ehrick, who elevated his Florence Avenue home 11 feet with some funding from NY Rising, said he prefers closed foundations such as the one he constructed.

Suffolk Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) lobbied for his community and others to adopt ordinances similar to Freeport's.

"It will be three years in October," McCaffrey said of the upcoming anniversary of Sandy's destruction. "It's a shame we still have people that are not back in their homes and people whose homes are not flood-resilient. Nobody wants that open foundation. . . . It does not fit in with the character of the neighborhood."

He echoed Laura Mason's point about the foundation's vulnerability and raised concerns about expense.

"We've been meeting with design professionals and, in many cases, the open foundation is more expensive to build than the closed foundation," McCaffrey said. "When you have the open foundation, you inherently have more problems. There are exposed pipes and plumbing and utilities exposed to the elements."

However, Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, based in Farmingdale, considers open foundations best for houses in vulnerable areas.

"We have to think about the long term. We'll get used to the way it looks," Esposito said. "Are we making the change for aesthetic reasons, or are we making the changes for the survival of the homeowner? We have to go with a structure that is more resilient."

Fan of open foundation

Esposito has an ally in Heather Horstmann of Lindenhurst. The family, whose home was destroyed by Sandy and had to be completely rebuilt, chose an open foundation -- even though the home is set back from the water.

"We love the way it looks," she said, adding that the home was constructed by a dock builder, so she is confident it can withstand a fierce storm.

Ralph Pacifico of Sayville-based Pacifico Engineering said either design works on the Island, though open foundations are more common among homes at the water's edge.

Both types of foundations are structurally sound, he said, and the cost difference is minimal.

"When you look at it, it's much ado about nothing," he said of the debate. "If it's designed and built properly, they should be equal in storm resistance, both open and closed."

Flood insurance costs for both designs are similar, as long as the closed foundation has proper flood vents, said Scott Primiano, an insurance advocate and managing partner at Flood Direct, and David Claussen, chief executive of Coastal Insurance in Rocky Point.

Costs aside, Oceanside resident Paul Tringali said his home would stand out for all the wrong reasons if it were on an open foundation, looking "ridiculous" in his neighborhood.

He was not far enough along with his home's elevation process when NY Rising made the policy change in December. As things now stand, that means he will have to pay the remaining 80 percent for his home's closed foundation -- a figure he estimated at $15,000.

"My architect and I have been working on my house elevation and closed foundation plans for over a year," Tringali said. "What I would like to see is the deadline extended to a future date, so that we know in advance what the rules are."

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