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A year after Sandy: The new normal — homes with a much higher view

MISQUAMICUT — Sitting at 109 Atlantic Ave. is a beach house belonging to Marcus McPhee, of Bristol, Conn. Set high on pillars, it towers over the beach and the other beach houses. Some residents might consider the summer home too tall by neighborhood standards. But it is not only legal; it could save its owner a lot of money on flood insurance.

In June, the town of Westerly approved two variances for the home: one to allow McPhee to raise it by 2 feet, and the second, a 5.2-yard setback variance on each side of the building.

But as Westerly zoning official Jason Parker explained, that wasn’t the end of it.

“Shortly thereafter, they came back in saying they made a mistake and they actually needed more height, and went to the board. On Sept. 4, 2013, they were granted an additional 1.9 feet in height. So total height variance that was granted on the project was 3.9,” he said. He was referring to action by the town Zoning Board of Review.

The building’s total height, measured from the ground, is now 40.5 feet. Of that, 28.9 feet is the building itself, and the rest, 11.6 feet, is air.

The McPhee family declined to comment.

State regulations now require that “new or substantially improved” houses in Federal Emergency Management Agency-mapped flood zones have 1 foot of freeboard; in other words, they have to be raised 1 foot above base flood elevation (BFE). At its Oct. 21 Town Council meeting, the town approved an amendment to its zoning ordinance that will allow residents, if they choose, to raise their houses even higher, to 3 feet above base flood elevation.

Parker said he couldn’t predict whether, like McPhee, some property owners would ask for permission to build higher than the 3 feet now permitted.

“Good question,” he said. “It’s entirely up to the zoning board. In zoning, a project can’t set a precedent.”

Parker added that owners wishing to raise their homes higher than the town currently allows would have to apply for a zoning variance, as the McPhees did, and each application would be considered on an individual basis.

As the rising sea level and more severe storms threaten the coastline, and with the phaseout of federal flood insurance subsidies, flood insurance rates are rising. People who raise their homes to better withstand storm surge can enjoy substantial savings on their premiums, so there is a clear incentive to build as high as possible.

“A structure built at the base flood elevation, all else being equal for a standard policy, that policy was $1,400. That same house constructed 3 feet above BFE, the annual premium went down to $400,” Parker said. “It is a good point to try to get people to voluntarily comply. It will at least help offset those premium increases.”

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