Local Officials Eye Strict Height Restrictions for Buildings in Old Lyme

A raised FEMA-compliant house in Old Saybrook (CT Examiner/Hewitt)


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OLD LYME — Two new houses planned on Hartung Place in Old Colony Beach, located in a 100-year flood plain, have received approval for raised FEMA-compliant construction at heights of 28.3 feet.

That height exceeds the town’s 24-foot maximum in the R-10 residential zone. The nonconformity required approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals, in a process that began in December 2019 and was finalized in January 2020.  On July 12, the Zoning Commission approved a special permit for demolition for the two existing houses on the property 

Most communities along the Connecticut shoreline have zoning regulations that allow for 30 to 35-foot-high construction for buildings raised above the height of the storm surge in compliance with Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines.

Old Lyme stands out as nearly the only town along the Connecticut shoreline with a maximum 24-foot height for buildings in the floodplain, which limits the options of property owners who elevate their homes. 

Limits to new construction in a floodplain

Buildings in the 100-year floodplain — which includes a substantial number of properties in Old Lyme — are subject to what is called a “lookback period” in FEMA regulations.

A project that exceeds a 50 percent spending threshold, based on the market value of the structure spent over a time period determined on a town-by-town basis, triggers FEMA’s “substantial improvement” clause requiring that the building be brought into full compliance with federal flood regulations.

100-year Floodplain in light blue (Credit: Google Map Data, 2020. FEMA Map Service Center)

FEMA regulations require that flood-prone structures be built or raised above the estimated storm-surge height.

Homeowners exceeding the allowable spending, they are left with two options: raise the existing structure on piers or demolish the existing house and build one that complies with the latest federal guidelines.

In Old Lyme, the lookback period is five years, but triggering the 50 percent threshold was not the issue for the Hartung Place properties, which were constructed in 1930. 

“The previous plan from February 2019 was to raise the existing structure on piers for FEMA compliance, but engineers determined that that the buildings were so old they would collapse,” said architect Chris Arelt, at the July 12 zoning meeting. 

According to Ed Smith, a building official for the Town of Clinton, the problems of older construction, which can have substandard framing or rot, have led many people to demolish older structures.

“It’s going to be less expensive to knock down than to raise it,” he said. “We are still seeing a mix in Clinton, but the cottages are on their way out the back door. There are very few left. The folks who have them are often selling.” 

Clinton uses a five-year lookback period and allows a height of 35 feet for raised buildings. 

“We have people who request higher, but there are pretty much no exceptions,” said Smith. 

Streamlined zoning regulations

In 2008, The Town of Old Saybrook revised its zoning regulations so that homeowners are no longer required to seek permission from the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals to raise a building. The town uses a 10-year lookback period and enforces a 35-foot height limit on FEMA-compliant buildings. 

“This helps the homeowner or property owner and saves time in situations of substantial damage. You could have a hurricane or tropical storm and have damage to multiple houses,” said Chris Costa, zoning enforcement official for the town. “To send a property owner to the ZBA to elevate an existing structure is time consuming and problematic particularly in a disaster situation. We streamlined the process.” 

Costa said the town had tweaked regulations to help homeowners with nonconforming structures, many on tiny lots along the water. 

Under the local regulations homeowners cannot build above the FEMA minimum height just to obtain a view. 

“We carefully thought out the regulations and the different scenarios. It’s been a great success,” she said. 

Costa said that after Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Sandy, when homeowners began to rebuild, the raised houses at first looked out of place, but as more and more structures became FEMA-compliant, the elevated houses became the new normal. 

“At first people were shocked at how high it was and then people became used to it as they learned why that house is so high,” she said. “In one circumstance, a couple said their home was out of place, so they elevated. It’s had a reverse role.”

A proposal to change Old Lyme Planning

At a July 9 Planning Commission meeting in Old Lyme, members discussed the ongoing effort to update the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, which is due by December 31. 

One change being considered would free existing structures from the local 24-foot height restriction “allowing the existing structure, or a similarly constructed, identically sized new structure, to be elevated above flood stage.” 

The change was earlier proposed in a January 25, 2018 letter from attorney John Bennet to Todd Machnik, a member of the Planning Commission.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that substantial improvement is based on market value, not assessed value.