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Westerly - State and local environmental and building officials on Wednesday collectively promised a streamlined permitting process to aid Misquamicut businesses devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
Business owners along Atlantic Avenue, the major artery along the beach, say they have been in a holding pattern since the storm, wondering whether and when they can rebuild. Sandy's storm surge wreaked havoc on the popular tourist area, destroying buildings, exposing septic systems and shifting tons of sand and debris.
Westerly Town Manager Steven Hartford moderated a public information session Wednesday that packed Town Hall. Representatives from several state agencies were peppered with questions from a crowd of mostly business owners.
"We're trying to get everyone up to speed on the process a little bit," Town Council member Kenneth Parrilla said. "We've got to get that beach opened as much as possible. Westerly is a tourist town. It's going to kill us economically without them."
In the coming weeks, Hartford said, the town is coordinating a series of marathon inspections to speed up the often cumbersome permitting process. A town building official will be on hand with representatives from both the state Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council for individual meetings.
Grover Fugate, CRMC's executive director, said emergency permits will be issued in the field in some cases.
"It's pretty safe to say at first glance … most of what we can see can be rebuilt in some fashion," Fugate said. "Our intent is to get everybody back on their feet as quickly as possible."
For those hard-hit structures - buildings that sustained damage of more than 50 percent - the process may be more complicated. Those structures will need to be built to current building code standards and will have to follow a more stringent permitting process.
Hartford said the town plans to waive the normal permitting process by bypassing public notices, and meeting and hearing requirements in favor of administrative reviews. Additional staff will be on hand to process plans, he said.
"We're looking for opportunities to streamline where we can," Hartford said. "If we have an opportunity to cut the red tape, we'll do that."
Russell Chateauneuf, chief of groundwater and wetland protection for the DEM, said coastal erosion from the storm uncovered many septic tanks and moved dunes. The shift in the coastal features will require some to move and update their septic systems to accommodate setback requirements. New systems will be required to have in-ground holding tanks rather than leach fields.
The amount of damage and costs associated with the septic systems has revived talks of a sewer line extension to the area, a controversial topic in town.
Atlantic Beach Casino Resort owner Barbara Stillman even proposed a shared community system.
A bit of good news came with the announcement Wednesday that Gov. Lincoln Chafee had issued an executive order delaying the implementation of a new fire code for Westerly. The code, scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, will be delayed until March 31 to allow time to rebuild.
Hartford said town-owned beaches and Misquamicut State Beach plan to be open for the 2013 season. Sand that covered the parking lots and roadways is being sifted and cleaned of debris before being deposited back onto the beach.
Sand was a major problem for Atlantic Avenue homeowner Nancy Brochu, who flew in from Florida to attend Wednesday's meeting. She said she already spent thousands to remove sand from around her home and said estimates to rebuild her deck are more than $50,000.
Rick Koch, owner of Flyhawk Parking, said he's spent nearly $10,000 to remove sand from his parking area. Without surrounding businesses open in the spring, he said everybody will suffer.
Jack Camp, a representative from the U.S. Small Business Administration, said he will be taking applications for federal disaster loans, which cover up to 100 percent of uninsured losses.
Hartford said Wednesday's meeting was just the beginning of the process. Questions and answers gathered at the meeting would be posted on the town's website, along with any other questions that come in.