P&Z continues discussion of shoreline building heights

Should the height of a home in a flood zone be calculated from the ground or the top of the pilings placing the home above floodwaters?

The Planning and Zoning Board (P&Z) appeared open to the idea of changing the current regulations and decided to continue studying a proposal to alter regulations for height limits of homes in a Special Flood Hazard Area Zone (SFPA) AE or VE. The public hearing remains open on the topic.

Attorney Kevin Curseaden submitted a proposed regulation change that would essentially calculate the height from the top of the pilings, using wording that is similar in places and different in others to the previous regulations changed in 2004 and 2008. Milford’s residential height limit is 35 feet in single-family zones.

At its Dec. 2, 2008 meeting, the P&Z voted to change the height calculation so that house height was calculated from the ground, and not from the top of the pilings. The board was responding to concerns from residents about three-story homes being built on pilings as high as a single story, which effectively created houses as high as four stories.

In 2008, the board included basements in the story count, and piers fell into the category of a basement. None of the P&Z members who made that 2008 decision are serving on the current board.

In March 2016, the current board voted to drop any reference to story counts in calculating residential height limits, and retained the 35-foot maximum height for homes in single-family zones.

At the Sept. 20 public hearing, Curseaden said prior to 2008, a house could be 35 feet tall or four stories, excluding the basement. This previous regulation allowed houses to be higher than 35 feet due to the allowance for four stories.

He said he spoke against those changes, saying, “It made every house on the shoreline non-conforming.” Curseaden said the regulations do not distinguish between building heights along the shoreline and those for homes on interior lots.

According to Curseaden, the regulations encourage people to raise 50 to 100 year old homes because they are pre-existing. He said such homes “are not fully compliant” with current building codes. He said Westerly, R.I., and shoreline towns in New Jersey have regulations similar to the ones he is proposing.

Curseaden said he was representing Donna Weaver and Jack Turek of 59 Hillside Ave., who are attempting to replace their storm-damaged house, which was demolished as a result of the damage.

The house they would like to build would exceed the 35-foot limit only three to four feet, said Curseaden. He said studies from other towns show that the extra height that people need is a difference of four to six feet in most cases.

“It [the proposed changes] would have a minimal impact on building height,” said Curseaden.

Curseaden said the actual height depends on the grade and topography of a building lot. He said just because a house is elevated 15 feet does not mean it adds 15 feet to the height count.

“It’s not a foot for foot exchange,” said Curseaden. “This particular property is sloped.”

During the public hearing, Turek said he and Weaver have been trying to rebuild their house for the past five years, saying it was damaged by storms Irene and Sandy. He said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency does not care about the height of a house. He said their lot has a nine-foot average grade, but they need to raise the house to 15 feet.

“If you look at the house we designed and put it on any lot in Milford, it meets the regulations,” said Turek.

Board member John Grant, who is chairman of the board’s Regulations Subcommittee, described the proposal as “a good start,” commenting, “There are things that need to be worked out,” such as wording and alignment with state and federal codes and standards. He said the proposed house meets the height regulation at the front, but exceeds 35 feet at the rear.

“We do need to look at our overall regulations on height,” said Grant.

Public works director Christopher Saley spoke in favor of the changes and said he was speaking as public works director. Saley said he believed most houses in the flood zone would not be higher than 45 feet.

“You want people to have an opportunity to raise properly, said Saley, sharing an example of a house in the Bayview Beach area that he said was not raised properly, and there is less opportunity for off-street parking. He disagreed with the assertion from city planner David B. Sulkis that the changes could result in a 70-foot high house.

Planner Critiques Changes

In a review of the proposed regulation change dated Sept. 2, Sulkis wrote, “The proposed change conflicts with the intent and goals of the POCD [Milford’s Plan of Conservation and Development] in coastal areas.”

According to Sulkis, who was not at the Sept. 20 meeting, this proposed change “results in the reconstruction of repetitive loss properties, which is in conflict with the POCD. He wrote that the conservation plan states that the city should seek to acquire properties within the flood zone when they become available.

Sulkis wrote that prior to the 2000-2003 change in the way heights were measured, year-round homes were raised out of the flood plain resulting in homes that reached heights of 70 feet in some situations. He wrote that a “public outcry at that time” led to the current height standard. This current proposal would revert to the previous method of measuring homes.

“The result of the proposed change would be that homes could be raised to heights far in excess [original emphasis] of the current 35’ height, depending on the flood zone in which the property is located,” wrote Sulkis. “Measuring homes in this previous way resulted in homes that were considered out of scale with the rest of the community.”

Sulkis challenged the assertion from Curseaden that homes in the flood zone are treated differently from other homes in the same zone. Sulkis wrote that this would be contrary to state statutes, which require regulations to be uniform in each zoning district.

“Providing separate zoning height standards for flood plain homes vs. out of flood plain homes in the same zoning district just isn’t permissible,” wrote Sulkis.

The proposed change would affect different parts of the Milford zoning regulations. One proposed change adds an asterisk to the city’s 35-foot height limitation for one family residential districts with the referenced statement, “Building height in feet within special flood hazard area zones AE or VE. Notwithstanding any section of these regulations to the contrary, maximum building height in feet in SFHA Zones AE or VE shall be determined as stated in Article XI herein.”

The other change adds text to Article XI, which is the definitions section of the regulations. A more extended definition is added to the definitions of Base Flood, Base Flood Elevation (BFE), and building height within a flood hazard area.

In the current regulations, base flood is also referred to as a 100-year flood, or a flood that might be expected to happen only once every 100 years. BFE is the elevation of the crest of the flood waters.

Building height within a flood hazard area is defined as “including all portions of a building situated below the regulatory flood protection elevation and all portions of basements or that extend above the finished grade adjacent to the building.”

The proposal adds definitions for Design Flood Elevation (DFE) and Freeboard. In Curseaden’s proposal, the Design Flood Elevation would be the base flood elevation, plus Freeboard.

Freeboard is a factor designed to compensate for factors that could cause flood heights greater than expected in a given location. Milford currently requires two feet of freeboard.

Curseaden proposes that the Height Measuring Point (HMP) be defined as the Design Flood Elevation, or the Base Flood Elevation, plus Freeboard.