WATERFORD — The Town of Waterford is considering an amendment to shorten its “lookback period” for substantial improvement to existing structures, a move that could help owners of buildings in the coastal floodplain maintain and improve their properties without triggering stringent rules requiring federal regulatory compliance.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) limits owners of properties threatened by flooding from investing more than 50 percent of the building’s market value over a period of time designated by local government. The lookback period can vary from as little as one year to as long as the life of the structure.
If repairs and renovations made within the lookback period exceed the 50 percent threshold — triggering FEMA’s definition of substantial improvement — the building must be brought into full compliance with current federal guidelines. In the case of coastal Connecticut, which was battered recently by Hurricane Sandy, full compliance can require raising a structure a dozen feet in the air — one foot above storm surge height.
For Waterford, the lookback period is currently “the life of the structure,” the most stringent standard available for a municipality. In practice that means that the owner of a home in a floodplain appraised at $200,000, would be limited to investing $100,000 in maintenance and improvements over the life of the structure before triggering full compliance with current FEMA regulations.
The town is considering limiting its lookback period to five or possibly ten years to help property owners maintain their homes, said Abby Piersall, Director of Planning for the town by telephone on Friday.
“What we’re finding is if residents have to replace a roof, say, on a smaller beach cottage that was converted to a full-time residence over the years, they can get to the 50 percent quickly, so we’re trying to find a reasonable balance,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re not being too lax and also make sure people can reasonably maintain their homes and the fabric of the neighborhood and community.”
Waterford’s lookback period has created a “very heavy burden,” said Piersall, who has been director of planning in Waterford since 2015.
“There’s been frustration while I’ve been here. Folks do less improvements than they might do otherwise, or they decide if they can keep the structure or not,” she said.
When homeowners have work done without permits, they can unwittingly trigger the 50 percent threshold. “It can be a double-whammy hit, so we’re working with folks to help them understand the regulations — this affects people’s lives,” she said.
Waterford is not the only town in the region seeking a better balance of local needs, federal compliance, and due care.
In January 2018, Stonington’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted to change the town’s lookback period from five years to one year to encourage property owners in flood-prone areas, such as downtown Pawcatuck, to invest. The area has several buildings left vacant and declining in value in part because the amount of investment needed would trigger the 50 percent threshold.
But there are benefits to federal compliance even before the next storm hits. Looking ahead, Waterford is also considering joining the Community Rating System, a FEMA program that provides discounts on flood insurance to residents. The program requires municipal compliance in a number of areas, such as training staff in floodplain management policies and restructuring the internal permitting review process. Depending on the level of compliance, towns receive a class rating that translates to a percentage discount on flood insurance.
For example, Stonington has a Class 8 CRS rating, which gives residents a 10 percent discount on flood insurance. A Class 9 CRS rating would provide residents with a 5 percent discount.
“We have not joined CRS yet. We did do quick analysis, we haven’t gone all the way through certification process — it’s on the list of things we’re considering. We’re actively working on it now,” said Piersall.
By comparison, Old Lyme’s lookback period is five years and the town has been in the CRS program for 15 to 20 years. East Lyme’s lookback period is 10 years and the town is also in the CRS program.
Piersal said changing to a shorter lookback period in Waterford would help residents maintain their homes while balancing the risk of owning property in the floodplain.
“We don’t want to create a regulatory burden that’s so severe that regular working folks can’t afford to live in the area,” she said. “At the same time, we want to acknowledge that real risk is out there.”
A public hearing on the lookback period amendment is tentatively scheduled for June 24 at Waterford’s town hall at 6:30 p.m.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that substantial improvement is based on market value not assessed value.