More than 100 Fairfielders still coping with Superstorm Sandy's aftermath packed Riverfield School on Wednesday night to with questions to ask federal and town officials about the repair and recovery process.
"We are getting a few more chairs and tables set up in back," First Selectman Michael Tetreau said as the forum got under way. "We've got a standing-room-only crowd and we're trying to address that."
Over the next two hours, town officials from the Plan and Zoning, Building and Conservation departments and federal officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Small Business Administration answered about 50 written questions related to flood elevations, town zoning regulations, permit fees, how the town plans to prepare for a future hurricane and grants and loans that could help them repair storm-damaged homes.
After the forum ended, Roland Schroeder, of Carlynn Drive, said he thought it was "very helpful."
"I thought it was great to have everybody in one room," Schroeder said.
Schroeder said he's thinking of elevating his house, though he's not required to because the cost to repair storm damage is not 50 percent of the house's overall appraised value.
If the estimated cost to repair a house is at least 50 percent of its appraised value before the storm, the homeowner is required to elevate it.
But Schroeder said elevating his home could lower his flood insurance premiums, make his home less susceptible to damage from a future storm and give him peace of mind.
"The big question is, `Will it happen again and, if so, will it be worse?' " he said.
Midway through the meeting, an audience member submitted a question that asked forum attendees how many of them plan to elevate their homes, and more than a dozen raised their hands to show that they plan to do so.
Assistant Town Planner James Wendt said the Plan and Zoning Department planned to recommend zoning regulations be changed in the beach district to allow houses to be taller because of the number of residents who want, or are forced, to elevate their homes because their storm damages exceed 50 percent.
The current height limitation in the beach district, along Fairfield Beach Road, is 30 feet. Officials indicated that the revised rules could allow an extra foot of height for every two feet of vertical distance between the average grade and base flood elevation, which already is in effect in the A, B and C residential zones, Wendt said. Any change to the regulations would require approval from the Town Plan and Zoning Commission.
Wendt said 12 permits had been issued to elevate homes so far, and none would violate the height limitation. He said several requests for waivers related to height are going before the town's Zoning Board of Appeals at a March 7 meeting that begins at 3 p.m. in Sullivan-Independence Hall.
The current minimum elevation for most homes south of the Old Post Road is 11 feet above sea level, but town officials recommend the elevation be from 13 to 15 feet based on what happened during Sandy.
Wendt said new flood zone maps due to take effect in July increase the minimum elevations by a foot or more, so it makes sense to elevate past the 11-foot minimum. He said elevating a house above 11 feet also would likely save homeowners money in flood insurance premiums, and would ensure duct work and structural components of the house are above the minimum elevation.
On Fairfield Beach Road, the minimum elevation is now 13 feet east of Reef Road and 15 feet west of Reef Road, Wendt said. He said flood waters from Sandy came close to the 100-year flood elevation, but didn't quite reach it.
Bob DeSaulniers, an insurance specialist with the National Flood Insurance Program, said the savings in insurance could be significant. He said a resident who raised his or her house from one foot below the 100-year flood line to two feet above it could save "thousands of dollars a year." But he advised homeowners to show the elevation plans to their insurance agents and ask for a quote and also ask underwriters if there's anything else they can do to reduce premiums.
Town Building Official James Gilleran said the average cost to elevate a house based on about 10 permits issued so far, which mostly were for ranch-style and split-level homes, is about $20,000. He said that cost was just to elevate the house and didn't include relocating mechanical equipment and other work associated with the elevation.
Gilleran said the town hadn't waived the cost of permits to renovate or rebuild houses due to damage from Superstorm Sandy. "We're charging the same price. We still have permit fees," he said. The cost of a permit is based on the value of work to be done, he said.
Residents forced to elevate their homes can file an Increased Cost of Compliance claim for up to $30,000. But the money, which is given as reimbursements, applies only to "the cost you would incur to minimally get (your house) back into compliance," DeSaulniers said.
He advised homeowners to have their contractors separate out ICC-eligible expenses from other expenses to streamline reimbursements. ICC claims can be filed up to four years after the town has given a letter to homeowners confirming their house sustained damage in excess of 50 percent of its appraised value, DeSaulniers said.
He added, "The project you're looking to be reimbursed for has to be completed in that four years."
Wendt said the town already has issued "a couple dozen ICC letters," and that the 50 percent calculation is based on a contractor's or insurance company's estimate to repair the house, not including the cost of elevating it.
However, no one can get more than a total of $250,000 between their flood insurance policy and the ICC, DeSaulniers said.
Residents who have to elevate their houses but can't afford to or who suffered damage they can't afford to fix can apply for a low-interest loan through the Small Business Administration, said Travis D. Brown, an SBA field operations specialist.
The amount of the loan -- capped at $200,000 for damage to the house plus $40,000 in damage to contents -- would be reduced based on how much insurance covers, Brown said.
"We will be short in some cases," he said. "You'll be offered the max we can do. If there is a shortfall, that's up to you to deal with."
Brown said the deadline to file for an SBA loan had passed, but a 15-day grace period is in effect until Feb. 27. He said SBA officials will be at the Fairfield Senior Center through Feb. 28 and that there isn't an application fee. "All you're out is the time to prepare a basic loan application," he said.
Tetreau urged residents whose homes suffered storm damage to keep their options open by applying.
Grants also may be available from FEMA, said Barry J. Macciocca, the federal agency's deputy director for mitigation. Those grants are given to the state, which then alerts municipalities that the grants are available. "The community can only make an application. We do not reach down to the individual level," he said.
The FEMA grants, which aren't available yet, are competitive and generally given out on a "worst first" basis, Macciocca said. He said the state would likely issue a "notice of funds availability" this spring.
"We don't have a move-forward date but we do have a move-forward plan," he said.
The relief fund for Sandy victims organized by the town and Operation Hope has about $200,000 and residents who would like to apply for money from it can contact the first selectman's office or Operation Hope, Tetreau said.
Tetreau said residents who believe they're the victim of price gouging by contractors should call his office for the number to state Attorney General George Jepsen's office. He said Jepsen expressed concern about that right after Sandy hit.
Residents with concerns about their homeowner's insurance policy, which does not cover flood damage, can contact the state Insurance Department, DeSaulniers said.
Tetreau said the town plans to rebuild Penfield Pavilion, which was undermined by the storm surge, and that it likely would cost taxpayers $125,000, based on the town's $500,000 insurance deductible on the shorefront structure and FEMA's anticipated 75 percent reimbursement for damage.
He said he isn't optimistic the pavilion would be open in the summer, but he said the Jacky Durrell Pavilion, which is at a higher elevation on Penfield Beach, was not damaged significantly and would be open.
The water that inundated Fairfield Beach from Sandy took a long time to recede in part because a culvert that normally had a 4-foot opening had collapsed, leaving only a 6- to 12-inch opening, said Annette Jacobson, administrator of the town's Conservation Department.
Tetreau said the town's Department of Public Works is reviewing what parts of town flooded during the storm, and what went right in terms of preventing storm damage and what went wrong in the aftermath. He said town officials visited Stamford on Wednesday morning to look at that city's dike and pumping system. "The dike on Old Dam Road, we came within inches of having that significantly breached," he said. "We're taking a look at that, taking a look at ... floodgates we have in place."
Mitigation efforts undertaken by residents that involve bulkheads, riprap and rocks would require a permit from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, officials said.
Tetreau advised residents with questions related to the potential for reduced property assessments due to damage from Superstrom Sandy to contact the town Assessor's Office.
Tetreau and Wendt said they understood the challenges in dealing with the storm's aftermath. "There's more than 100 years of collective experience in the town of Fairfield here, and none of us has seen anything like this before," the first selectman said.