This article is intended for homeowners with non-flood compliant homes, who may be considering raising their home, or performing a major addition or renovation. The requirements surrounding these practices are complex, and this article is not a substitute for professional advice. We urge homeowners to start this process with a firm that has comprehensive knowledge of both FEMA, Environmental, and Site Planning regulations. Part 1 covers FEMA processes and Part 2 CRMC.

Raising or re-building a home

Let’s say you’ve received a form from your insurer, or you’ve become aware that your home is at greater flood risk than you’ve previously perceived because you’ve looked at the “storm tools” maps or you’ve had a flood or close call.

The decision process can be harrowing, how do we get started?

How much do we raise our home? What type of foundation do we use?

Can we reuse parts of the old home, or do we build a new one? What permits do I need, etc?

If you have any of these questions, read on:

This may also be helpful to people seeking to build new structures, or those working within the confines of CRMC.

Often, people want to start with an architect, and come to us with a conceptual design of what they want to build; but this is not the process that we recommend. Until the criteria outlined in this article are determined, it’s often premature to start the design process. More often than not, those conceptual designs end up being thrown out or substantially revised in the face of site constraints. Our recommendation is that you work with us, or a qualified architect to determine the programming. In other words, what are the number of bedrooms, the square footage and space needs, garage spaces, etc that you would want? Jot that information down, and then stop, until the following process is complete. Only then, once you know the site restrictions, can you begin designing the structure.

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The process starts with an accurate survey of the property, boundaries, topography, utilities, and detailed information on the height of the house relative to the flood elevation and risk maps. We then look at your permit history, most houses within a flood hazard zone are within CRMC’s jurisdictional area (within 200′ of the coastal feature), so understanding the permit history, buffers, and permit conditions are critical. CRMC has a long memory, and restrictions imposed by prior permits remain binding. We’ll delineate any wetlands buffers or setbacks, and identify the coastal feature (the basis for CRMC buffers and setbacks).

If your property is served by a septic system (OWTS), we will similarly review the permit history and determine if you can re-use your OWTS or if a new one is going to be required. There is more on this topic in my “septic systems” blog, but if you have a “cesspool” and you’ll need a new system. OWTS still need to meet requisite setbacks, principal among them is the minimum 50’ setback from the coastal feature (200’ abutting salt ponds, though relief is an option for smaller parcels but can’t result in an increased bedroom count). If your OWTS is closer, it needs to be redone.

We’ll also look at your existing structure, to identify the type of construction (basement, crawlspace, slab, piers, etc), the drainage conditions, and the consistency of the foundation (concrete, block, etc). If there is a chance of re-using all or part of the foundation, we will typically do some code analysis and also excavate to determine the presence of a spread footing.

If you were trying to build on an undeveloped site, you would need to meet the CRMC buffer and setback requirements.

These are based on:

⦁ The size of the parcel

⦁ The type of waters adjacent (the conservation value rated 1 to 6. As an example, a 1 may be Second Beach, and 6 is Providence Harbor)

Take a look at the maps here.

For example, if you have a 25,000 sq ft parcel (ideally, measured from a class 1 boundary survey, this is particularly important when measuring to mean high water, as it can have a large influence on the area, and if not measured properly can come back to haunt down the road), abutting type 2 waters, you would require a 75’ buffer.

It’s important to note, on most parcels, unless there is a prior assent establishing a buffer, there is no buffer on the parcel. Buffers are established, typically, one of two ways.

⦁ New Construction on undeveloped lots.

⦁ Expansions, or re-building a structure greater than 50% of the existing Structural Lot Cover (SLC). It’s a technical term that means: “roofed area.”

There are other more idiosyncratic ways of buffer creation, but they are uncommon. It’s important to note, expansions or re-building can be a weedy process, and the structures still need to conform to setback requirements.

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I’ve written about this in other blogs, but those two terms buffers and setbacks are important to define, even my staff can get mixed up on these.

Buffer: A buffer is an undisturbed, vegetated, unmanaged section of land between the coastal feature and the land. Buffers are important for a variety of reasons, they help with stormwater mitigation, habitat, and provide aesthetic benefits. Typically, owners are allows a view corridor within their buffer (a maximum of either 25% of the buffer area or 25% of the width along the mean high water line), as well as a 4’ to 6’ wide path to the shore, within the view corridor.

(Construction) Setback: This is a minimum distance that roofed structures need to be set back from the coastal feature. Typical at least 25’ from the edge of the buffer or 50’ minimum from the CF. Typically, decks and patios can be placed within this zone, provided they do not have roofs; otherwise a structure of multi unit roofs is needed. For shorelines with dunes, setbacks are further, measured from the inland edge of the foredune, (front of the dune), often defined as 25’ from the dune crest. We’ll gloss over this for purposes of this article, just know it’s a little bit different.

The setback can be more extreme, particularly on erosive sites. Typically, if the erosion rate x 30 (years) is less than 50’, these don’t come into play. But on coastal beach sites (Block Island in particular), the erosion rate can be severe. This can lead to increased structure setbacks, never mind the fact that it’s good practice.

You can find your erosion rate here.

Both of these elements are restrictions upon the land, and it can be challenging on many parcels to comply with these requirements and still meet the programming needs of the structures. Buffers and setbacks are important environmentally as they provide habitat, have aesthetic value, can filter stormwater and pollutants, etc, but can be challenging for property owners to deal with as they limit what can be built. Variances from these standards are rare, and typically only viable on parcels that have an odd configuration or atypical elements representing a hardship. Even then, it can be challenging to obtain approval, in many cases this level of relief requires approval by CRMC Council, which is both time consuming and expensive.

If your building is non-conforming with respect to:

⦁ Established buffers or setbacks

⦁ Setbacks measured from the current erosion setback.

⦁ Prior permit restrictions.

…then we’re going to need to find a way to remedy those, as part of your permit application, or CRMC is just going to sit on your permit until you clean house. Significant issues can raise the ire of enforcement, that means that only do they deny your permit, they also start levying fines or legal action. Not fun, not recommended. It’s always better to try to work with staff administratively.

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Let’s get back on topic here, this article is really focused on people who have existing houses and want to raise them, and/or put on additions.

Demolishing and rebuilding or expanding an existing structure:

Less than 50%

Most of the time, houses built pre-CRMP (typically the early 1970s), with no major additions or expansions, will not have any buffers associated, since CRMC was not around to “create” them. In the majority of these cases, owners prefer to work within the 50% expansion threshold to avoid having buffers created or established on their property.

A couple more definitions for clarity:

Structural Lot Coverage (SLC): A technical term that equates to “roofed area” usage in determining buffer requirements.

Essentially, any structure under a roof, “counts” toward CRMC’s assessment. Decks, without roofs, patios and driveways are excluded from this definition. Non-roofed structures can typically be placed seaward of the construction setback but must be landward of the buffer..

Coastal Feature (CF): Elevated landforms abutting coastal waters. In lay terms, the edge of a sea cliff, or the “hill” or mound just before the beach starts.

CRMC has general guidelines here.

It can be hard to “define” but your staff have decades of experience in delineating these, but it’s important to note that prior permit definitions (even when technically inaccurate) are still binding.

Once the records review is complete, we will accurately survey the existing building and determine the SLC. If the proposed structure is <50% of the existing, no new buffers are created. There are still minimum setbacks that apply for buildings, but typically, as long as the new building is further landward than the existing, permits can be granted.

For example, if your existing buildings SLC is 1000 sqft., and you want to demolish that building and build a new 1499 sqft building, the SLC increase would be:

1499 sqft (proposed) – 1000 sqft. (existing): 499 sqft. (differential)

So, 499 sqft / 1000 sqft = 49.9% increase. That would be less than 50%.

It is important to note, this metric only looks at the coverage, it does not measure the vertical elements. So the 1,000 sqft exiting house could be 1 story, and the new 1,499 sqft. House could be 2 or 3 stories, it doesn’t matter. If you’re trying to maximize the building floor area, then going vertical is an “easy” way to accomplish this.

The project still needs to comply with planning and zoning requirements, stormwater, as well as DEM OWTS (Septic Systems), where applicable. But a project as outlined above, would not require a new buffer. So if you have an open lot to the beach, you can preserve it. You can always elect to plant trees or shrubs but you’re not required to.

These are the “easy” ways to do expansion and renovations, typically. If you’re simply raising your home, but not creating any horizontal additions, permits are still required, but they are generally prescriptive and easy to obtain, since you’re percent increase is greater than 50%.

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There are still many cases where the existing structure is very small, or owners need a larger house than the 50% SLC increase maximum will allow. In the cases where the new structure’s SLC is 50% or greater than the existing SLC, the permitting process is much more complex. It’s akin to building on a “vacant” lot, CRMC is going to require that the full buffer be enforced for these properties. Now, this is a general article, so that are some exceptions, the most notable is when the buffer area is more than 50% of the lot area (the buffer can prescriptively be reduced), but in my experience those exceptions are very hard to permit in practice and require a lot of time and resources to negotiate with staff.

In these cases, typically, the buffer is required based on the table on page 6, copied here again, the process is very similar to that of an “undeveloped site.”

Ultimately, we love doing these projects, they are near and dear to our passions and expertise, and we have the capability to complete (quite literally) all aspects of permitting and design for these projects. We’re also well equipped to work with others, architects, designers, attorneys, etc, every project has its own distinct needs and team.