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    Imminent Horizons
    Saturday, July 20, 2024

    Stonington flood zone proposal highlights delicate balance between conservation and homeowner cost

    View of Cynthia Palmer’s home in Mystic from a community dock Friday, May 25, 2024. Proposed change to substantial improvement look back period could significantly impact property owners in flood zones. (Dana Jensen/The Day).
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    The Geographic Information System map shows the town’s flood zones. Land in A and AE zones, shown in purple and green, are within the 100-year floodplain. Properties in zone VE are at the highest risk. Also within the 100-year floodplain, the area shown in light blue is at high risk of flooding and damage due to wave action and/or tidal surges. According to the town website, approximately one-third of the lots in Stonington are located in a flood zone. (Town of Stonington)
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    View from Cynthia Palmer’s home with a. View of the water that goes up to her property in Mystic Friday, May 25, 2024. Proposed change to substantial improvement look back period could significantly impact property owners in flood zones. (Dana Jensen/The Day).
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    View of Cynthia Palmer’s home, right, in Mystic from a community dock Friday, May 25, 2024. Proposed change to substantial improvement look back period could significantly impact property owners in flood zones. (Dana Jensen/The Day).
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    View of Cynthia Palmer’s home, right, in Mystic from a community dock Friday, May 25, 2024. Proposed change to substantial improvement look back period could significantly impact property owners in flood zones. (Dana Jensen/The Day).
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    Stonington — Cynthia Palmer, 70, would like to make some improvements to her home so she can stay there as she grows older, but her plan could be jeopardized by a proposal that pits flood protection against pocketbooks.

    “I’ve been here in this house for 33 years. Obviously, I’m a Stonington resident, pay my taxes, and I feel strongly that I’d like to be able to stay here,” Palmer said.

    As part of the comprehensive rewrite of Stonington’s zoning regulations, the Planning and Zoning Commission is considering an increase to the “substantial improvement look-back period” from one year to three years.

    This time period looks at the value of improvements or flood repairs made to a home. If the improvements exceed 50% of the home’s or building’s value, the owners must comply with Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations. These regulations require raising the building above flood elevation, which is a very costly endeavor. The longer the look-back period, the more difficult it is for property owners to make improvements without having to comply with FEMA flood regulations.

    Other towns along the local shoreline have look back periods ranging from one year in neighboring Westerly and Groton, to 10 years in New London.

    The proposed change here would mean that all improvements or repairs, including flood damage, made to a building within a three-year period, could not exceed 50% of the structure’s market value without complying with FEMA regulations.

    FEMA regulations for flood zones include various requirements for materials and construction methods as well as raising the first floor of a property to 1 foot above base flood elevation.

    For Palmer, who lives on the northern part of Masons Island outside the private association, base flood elevation is 12 feet, which means her first floor would have to be 13 feet high. In other areas of town near the Pawcatuck River or the coast, base flood elevation can be as high 13, 14 or even 15 feet.

    Several years ago, when Palmer initially envisioned a small addition to enlarge her foyer and grading her property to make her front entrance more accessible, she said she was in a bind, noting that many people do not realize how low the market value of their home is.

    Under FEMA guidelines, a structure’s market value does not include land, landscaping or detached structures, but does include “depreciation due to age, use and neglect,” and her waterfront home was valued at just around $85,000. Her project was estimated to exceed the threshold of $42,500.

    A difficult decision

    With the recent revaluation, her property value jumped to nearly three-quarters of a million dollars, but her 1961 ranch-style home is worth just $172,600. Nonetheless, the steep increase meant she could make the modifications she was considering without issue, but the proposed change could create a whole new dilemma for her.

    Because any work to a building during a look-back period is cumulative, the change would pose a very difficult decision.

    If she goes forward with her project so she can remain in her home as she ages, and then her home is damaged by flooding, repairs could exceed her new $86,300 threshold, forcing her to either postpone repairs until the initial three-year period is over, or raise her home, making her modifications useless.

    “The bottom line is you don’t have a choice. You have to honor the substantial improvement because that’s part of the federal guidance for floodplain management,” said New London land use attorney William Sweeney.

    “If you don’t honor that, then your community can’t get a flood rating, and it can’t get flood insurance, so towns don’t have a choice,” he explained.

    The flood rating is a voluntary, point-based community rating that determines how much property owners pay for flood insurance through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program. Municipalities get points for initiatives that improve floodplain management, including strengthening regulations like extending look-back periods.

    According to the floodplain manager contracted by the town, Noah Slovin, a senior resilience planner with SLR International, Stonington’s current regulations are worth 1,641 points, netting property owners a 15% discount; 359 additional points would fetch property owners a 20% discount.

    Slovin said that, exclusive of any other changes, the three-year look-back proposal would only give Stonington 90 points, but any extra points the town can tally up help to provide a buffer for points a town may lose through other regulation changes.

    Earlier this year at a Planning Zoning Commission meeting on the comprehensive zoning rewrite, Selectman Ben Tamsky spoke as a private citizen in favor of a five-year look-back period, but the commission settled at proposing a three-year period.

    “We sort of adopted a middle of the road approach ― that one (year) was too short and five had created problems elsewhere,” said commission Chair Chuck Sheehan earlier this month, referring to a five-year look-back the commission adopted in 2013, when Tamsky was the commission chair.

    Five years later, the commission unanimously voted to return to a one-year look-back amid pushback from the Economic Development Commission and community members like the Lord’s Point Association.

    Jen Daly McFadden, Lord’s Point Association president, said earlier this month that the association continues to oppose an increase to the look-back period.

    Tamsky said he supports the longer period despite owning two floodplain properties in town, one of which needs work that will exceed the threshold.

    “I guess, if I was smart, I would keep my mouth shut and utilize that one-year look-back,” he said. He added he doesn’t necessarily advocate for things that will help himself but what is best for his community.

    He explained that his reasons today are the same as when he voted to approve the five-year look-back in 2013.

    “We changed it from one year, which was a loophole, to five years. It wasn’t punitive; it wasn’t a punishment. It was trying to enforce the intent of the regulation,” he said, explaining the intent of FEMA regulations is to get people to bring their properties up to code to maximize public safety and minimize flood and property damage.

    Several Planning and Zoning Commission members at a zoning rewrite meeting in April also referred to the current one-year look-back as a “loophole” used to avoid complying with FEMA regulations.

    Property owners can avoid spending 50% of their building’s value within one year by phasing a project — much harder to do under a three-year look-back.

    Compliance vs. growth

    “There has to be a balance,” said Sweeney, who also disagreed that phasing is a loophole in floodplain regulations.

    He explained that coastal resilience and compliance with FEMA regulations is important, but without the option to phase a project, owners may simply opt to not improve their properties, which can stunt economic growth.

    “The substantial improvement threshold is absolutely an impediment to economic development, and particularly economic redevelopment,” he said.

    “It makes it that much harder to take underutilized, deteriorated, abandoned buildings in our coastal area and put them back into productive reuse, and what happens often is these buildings stay vacant or underutilized, or they don’t get that vibrant renewal that you want to see in your core areas,” he explained.

    Sweeney argued that, in the face of rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms, towns should focus on hardening their coastlines and protecting shoreline communities in other ways.

    “It should be a balancing point, so you can still make productive reuse of older buildings, you can still renovate them, but you have to do so in a reasonable way and with as much compliance as is reasonably necessary with floodplain regulations,” he said.

    Sheehan agreed and said he was not sure what the best solution is but that public feedback would help the commission make a determination.

    “While you want to encourage compliance with the regulations and reduce the town’s risk, you don’t want to diminish investment in the community either, and that’s exactly what a too severe approach would do here,” he said.

    “If FEMA had their druthers, they’d move everybody out of the floodplain zone. That’s just the best compliance situation. So somewhere in between that and reality, because there is so much development in the floodplain zone, you try to strike a balance,” he added.

    The next Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on the comprehensive rewrite is scheduled for June 12, and it will hold a public, virtual presentation on June 26.

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