“This really came out of a lot of discussion from the Hurricane Task Force we had here, but also a lot from the frustration that community folks were having with government agencies, specifically in rebuilding from before the hurricane,” said Borough President Melinda Katz.
The proposed amendment stems from an initial zoning text amendment adopted citywide in 2013, which suspended certain zoning restrictions so homeowners in storm-damaged areas could rebuild their homes to new flood-resistant standards as designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Brendan Pillar, Waterfront Team Leader for the Department of City Planning’s Queens Office, said that after the zoning overhaul in 2013, it quickly become apparent through conversations with community members and the Borough President’s Hurricane Task Force that additional alternations needed to be implemented to zoning regulations to make it easier for residents in flood zones to rebuild.
“What we realized was there were still additional changes needed in zoning to simplify the documentation process for showing existing conditions on properties,” he said. “The rules adopted in 2013 assumed an existing condition can be well documented, and given the age of the homes in many of the city’s waterfront neighborhoods, that can often be difficult or impossible to do.”
“I think the main issue here is that buildings will be able to be rebuilt to pre-existing Hurricane Sandy size,” said Katz of the new zoning amendment. “That was really the big problem that was happening—no one could really prove how exactly they were before Hurricane Sandy, and even if they could it wasn’t exactly within the zoning regulations sometimes. We want them to be able to rebuild.”
Pillar said the new text amendment would simplify the documentation process for showing the prior conditions of properties damaged by Sandy.
Older homes that comprise much of the waterfront have often undergone numerous extensions or renovations that go undocumented, and thus the specifications of many homes just prior to the storm have been difficult to prove on rebuilding permit applications
As a result, permits are often denied or residents are forced to make nonsensical decisions about how to proceed with construction, wherein they can only rebuild at higher elevations the portions of their homes with thorough documentation, or rebuild the entire structure at its previous elevation, which doesn’t comply with new FEMA standards, only to incur higher insurance premiums.
“We want to remove some of the disincentives that we found as people have started rebuilding their homes,” Pillar said. “People were often forced to make choices about whether to keep portions of their building at their current elevations, or elevate a smaller building with less floor area.
“We don’t want homeowners to have to make that decision, so we’re providing some additional flexibility in zoning to remove those disincentives,” he added.
Pillar said a third aspect of the zoning amendment involved initiating a new zoning envelope (the maximum space on a zoning lot within which a structure can be built) that he said were often restrictive in the affected areas.
“The zoning that’s currently in place today will provide a very narrow home, sometimes as narrow as 10 feet, which is not a very livable space,” he said. “We want to provide a new zoning envelope with some different front and side guard requirements that will provide a more livable space.”
Chairs from Community Boards 10, 13 and 14 each voted in favor of the amendment on Monday. Community Board 13 Chair Bryan Block said that although he was voting yes, he said some members of his community, specifically in Rosedale, had voiced concerns that their homes weren’t included in the zoning text amendment.
Rudy Giuliani, borough director for the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery, said that the majority of homes had sufficient documentation for rebuilding, and concerns in the community could largely be addressed with more information and outreach to homeowners.
Pillar suggested convening at Rosedale Civic Association’s next monthly meeting.
Council members Elizabeth Crowley, Daneek Miller and Paul Vallone all voted in favor of the amendment as well.
There was not a quorum of council members at the meeting, and so in lieu of a vote Katz issued an opinion acknowledging the community board and council members’ votes.
“The opinion is going to be a resounding yes,” said the Borough President, saying the office would also put Rosedale’s reservations on the record.
The amendment will next be on the agenda for the City Planning Commission meeting slated for May 20.