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Fire Island gets tighter building code

Brookhaven Town Hall

Brookhaven Town Hall Credit: Newsday / Bill Davis

The Brookhaven Town Board has closed a loophole that allowed residents in protected areas of Fire Island to repair or replace their homes without approval from authorities even if that work exceeded what zoning laws would permit.

The board voted unanimously Friday to rewrite a code amendment that had been intended to help Fire Island residents rebuild homes damaged or destroyed by superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

The original law, approved by the town board in January 2013, waived zoning variances for houses in protected areas within Fire Island National Seashore, even those that did not sustain damage from the storm. The rewritten code now requires those property owners to seek variances from the town Board of Zoning Appeals before they do any work.

At least one Fire Island property owner took advantage of the loophole while it was in effect, a town spokesman said. With the code change that loophole is now closed, officials said.

Town officials said the updated code more closely mirrors federal guidelines governing development in protected areas on Fire Island, which joined the federal parks system in 1964. Town officials said the 1964 federal law limited development and remodeling of existing homes within the seashore and was amended in 1984 to allow limited repairs and improvements.

"This town wants to be in compliance," Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said. "That's why we lifted the federal language."

Fire Island National Seashore Superintendent K. Christopher Soller said the updated code satisfies federal requirements. Under the law that created the national seashore, town zoning must conform with federal rules intended to stem overdevelopment on the island.

Some residents and environmentalists said the new town rules don't go far enough to prevent changes to existing homes within the protected area.

Meg Switzgable, a Brooklyn resident who owns a summer home in Fire Island Pines, said the town law would still permit "perpetual nonconformity" with federal and town zoning rules governing the seashore.

She and her husband, Thomas Brown, said the law creating the seashore aimed to limit development on Fire Island and gradually reduce the number of homes that did not comply with zoning ordinances.

Soller said construction on vacant lots doubled the number of homes in the protected area to 4,000 since the federal seashore law was enacted. That construction was legal and had been anticipated when the law was written, he said.

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