Expediting Permitting To Aid Irene Re-Building Efforts

10/10/11 7:24AM By Kirk Carapezza
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VPR/ Kirk Carapezza
Tim Conver is hoping to repair or rebuild his home on Richmond's Esplanade before winter creeps in.

(Host) Tropical Storm Irene damaged hundreds of homes and businesses across Vermont.

But most of them were not devastated completely.

Now, as the days grow shorter and colder, cities and towns are considering speeding up building permitting.

As VPR's Kirk Carapezza reports, the idea is to help residents who urgently want to repair or rebuild their flood-damaged homes and businesses before winter creeps in.

(Carapezza) Irene hit Richmond's infrastructure hard. It undermined the town's waste water treatment plant. Residents were without water for a week.

A swollen Winooski River flooded the basement of Richmond's Town Hall, washing away some government records.

But, in Richmond, Irene mostly damaged homes, and directly disrupted the lives of about 50 families.

(Conver) "We may just have to take this down and put up a new home."

(Carapezza) Tim Conver is a 60-year-old paint contractor. He leans against his home on Richmond's Esplanade where he lives with his fiancé Joanne. Conver describes all the water damage Irene inflicted on his property.

(Conver) "It wasn't just mud, it was mud and everything else that came out of people's basements - fuel and everything in it.  It was kind of a toxic mess."

(Carapezza) Floodwaters ruined the lower section of Conver's house. All the carpet had to be ripped out. The floorboards buckled, so he had to remove the saturated insulation below them.

(Conver) "One thing we're noticing with this cold weather that we just got last night, because we have no insulation underneath the house, the floors are chilly. So we're worried about the extra heat cost."

(Carapezza) Before it gets too cold, towns in the flood zone are trying to speed up how they issue building permits to residents like Conver who are looking for help with repairs.

But they're doing so with a healthy dose of caution, for fear of jeopardizing their participation in the National Flood Insurance Program.

(Filkorn) "What we're looking at right now is a temporary bylaw change to our zoning ordinance that would run until next April."

(Carapezza) Erik Filkorn is a member of the Richmond Select Board.

(Filkorn) "All the houses on this street saw some flood waters in them."

(Carapezza) As he walks down the Esplanade, Filkorn says the town is struggling to determine what constitutes land development in the flood zone post-Irene.

(Filkorn) "What we're hoping is that through a bylaw amendment - a temporary one - we can simplify that process."

(Carapezza) That way, the town can say, no, replacing a water heater doesn't count as development, but, yes, expanding your foundation does.

(Filkorn) "Just to make the boxes that everything goes in a little bit simpler."

(Carapezza) In Northfield, the Select Board has eliminated permit fees in areas affected by the flood. The Zoning Administrator there has been going house to house, assisting with applications.

Four of the 53 families affected by Irene there have opted not to rebuild.

Wilmington also waived permitting fees, and its Select Board adopted interim flood hazard area bylaws that speed up the permit process.

Many of these towns have had to increase the hours of their staff to meet the growing demand. Erik Filkorn says Richmond's Town Administrator has had to put important business on the back-burner.

(Filkorn) "We've actually, ironically, been in the middle of challenging the new flood map from FEMA, challenging the assumptions on which it is based."

(Carapezza) Filkorn says the increase in the minimum flood stage level in Richmond was set almost three feet higher than any other town along the Winooski.

But before Richmond's Select Board can figure that out, it's focused for now on finding a way to speed up the building process - something that, in normal times, can take months - so that people can put their homes back together.

For VPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza.

(Host) Next month, Richmond will hold a public hearing about the proposed temporary changes to its zoning bylaws.

You can read the minutes in which we found this story, and records from more than 50 cities and towns, including Granville, Wilmington and Northfield, at VPR's Public Post.

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