The New Paltz community has been hearing a lot of late about the trials and tribulations of Plains Road residents; but they’re not the only Paltzonians with big water problems. For many years the folks who live on Springtown Road and adjoining roads have had to put up with sporadic flooding of the Wallkill River, cutting many of their homes off from the rest of the world, sometimes for days at a time. And now they have another problem: “unintended consequences” of the town’s floodplain law, passed in December 2011, during the last days of the Hokanson administration.
At a public meeting organized by floodplain residents at the New Paltz Community Center last Sunday, Springtown resident Caroline Paulson explained what motivated her to call her neighbors together. The law as currently written, she said, far exceeds what is required in a “model” floodplain law, making it impossible for floodplain residents to expand or renovate their homes and driving down their market value. “I can’t stand that my neighborhood has been put in the crosshairs,” she said. “I spent the winter studying the zoning codes until my eyeballs were bleeding.”
Paulson collected 150 signatures on a petition to the town to amend the floodplain law and sent it to the Town Board. She eventually got a response from councilman Jeff Logan, saying, “We want specific proposals of what in the law you want changed.”
So Paulson, who spent some time in law school, drafted some proposed tweaks in wording that she thought would make the burden of living in the floodplain less onerous, and distributed copies of her proposals to meeting attendees. She urged the group to lobby the current town administration for changes before a new Town Board and supervisor, perhaps less sympathetic to their cause, take office after the end of 2015.
One member of the current Town Board who is clearly sympathetic is Kevin Barry, who introduced his remarks by saying that he was “not speaking in an official capacity.” He displayed a map of the affected neighborhood delineating the acreage designated floodway, flood fringe and general floodplain area, saying that “the rules and regulations are a little bit different” for each. He also distinguished between the preamble to the law, which conforms to standard floodplain regulation language and whose purpose is “to prevent recurring property damage and loss of life,” and the restrictions written into the zoning code, which he and Paulson both said seem like they were “written by a different person.”
The language as written, said Barry, puts homeowners in a double bind when disaster strikes their homes. Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations require residents in an officially designated floodplain to rebuild a more flood-resistant structure on the same building footprint in order to qualify for disaster relief funding. But the New Paltz code makes it nearly impossible to do that, because total replacement exceeds the 20 percent threshold for what the town considers “substantial improvement.” Thus a resident whose nonconforming homesite was “grandfathered in” because it existed prior to passage of the law would forfeit the right to rebuild on the same site, even if his or her house were, say, struck by lightning and destroyed by fire rather than flooded out. And the FEMA replacement funding is not portable to another parcel. “What is the impact to you if your mortgage lender finds out you can’t rebuild?” Barry asked rhetorically.
One particularly egregious portion of the floodplain zoning code, said critics, is the requirement not only that homesites be at a specified elevation, but also that no portion of a driveway — or even the public road leading to the site — lie more than 1.5 feet below “base flood elevation level.” This regulation is ostensibly intended to guarantee emergency vehicles access to homes, but attendees pointed out that many other houses exist at higher elevations in the town that are even more inaccessible to fire engines due to steep driveways with tight turns. They also emphasized that the low-lying areas are underwater only a few days out of each year.
If a Springtown resident whose home is destroyed cannot prove that no portion of the driveway or access road takes a dip exceeding the limitation, the homeowner must apply for a variance in order to rebuild, Barry explained. And if the Zoning Board of Appeals turns the applicant down, even for “capricious” reasons, the only recourse left to him or her is a costly Article 78 lawsuit. “I read about 50 other laws,” said the councilman, who is also an attorney, “and none of them have road or driveway provisions.” Nor do neighboring flood-prone areas of Rosendale or Gardiner, he noted.
Under the law, properties in the floodplain area, even large parcels, may not be subdivided except to carve off one lot for a second dwelling, such as for a family member. Barry said that the intent of such strict regulation was to squelch even “modest additional growth,” with language finding that further development of the area other than for open space, campgrounds or golf courses is “not critical to the orderly development of the town” and therefore “not in the town’s interest.” He argued that such restrictions are unnecessary because preexisting codes already require minimal road frontage per dwelling unit: “Springtown Road is never, ever going to have a crazy amount of development.” Only one house has been built there in the past ten years, he said, and three or four are now uninhabited because the owners have found them too difficult to sell.
The councilman, who stated that he did not intend to run for reelection, urged neighborhood residents to familiarize themselves with the language of the floodplain law, which is accessible on the Town of New Paltz website, and to present their preferred alternative language to the full Town Board as soon as possible. He also offered to review and comment on the draft language already prepared by Paulson.