Town Supervisor Laura Gillen announced on Jan. 16 that she was seeking to hire an outside consultant to audit the town Building Department and offer recommendations on how to streamline its building permit-approval process.
The announcement came in the wake of revelations that town residents continue to be issued mandatory elevation notices for damage their homes sustained in Hurricane Sandy years after the floodwaters subsided, and after the application period for elevation-assistance programs has ended.
“This operational audit and review will help identify ways in which technology, mapping and real-time data capturing can further modernize the operation and make the permitting process seamless and safety standards transparent,” Gillen announced.
She said that the company chosen for the job, FTI Consultants, a Washington, D.C.-based business advisory firm, was selected by a bipartisan committee after a competitive bidding process, and its hiring, with a $150,000 contract, is subject to a vote by the Town Board, which she said she expects to happen in the coming weeks.
Councilman Anthony D’Esposito, an Island Park resident, said he would like to learn more before a decision is made. “While I’m eager to consider any proposal that can help increase governmental efficiency, I first need to know the scope of the work, the cost to taxpayers and the contract details,” he said. D’Esposito added that Gillen’s comments were “not accurate” because town board members were not included in interviews or the selection of FTI Consultants, and were not made aware of a request for proposals.
Building Department Commissioner John Rottkamp declined to comment on the proposal until a vote is held.
Gillen reported that her office had received 1,400 complaints about the Building Department, the second-highest number among town departments — surpassed only by the Highway Department, which is responsible for pothole repair and snow removal.
The Building Department handles 9,000 building-permit applications per year. The complaints, Gillen said, stem primarily from a lengthy permit-approval process, in which applications for construction as simple as a deck or drywall replacement can take months.
Oceanside architect and Herald columnist Monte Leeper, who has worked with Building Department officials for nearly 36 years, said the average permit for residential construction can take three to six months to be approved, and some applications languish for more than a year before being addressed, because the plan examiner has too many applications to review.
“As an architect, people began to question whether the delays are due to some level of my incompetence or lack of political pull,” Leeper said, “when, in fact, the system has many built-in stumbling blocks that could easily be avoided.”
At least a few of the complaints, however, focused on the department’s late issuance of mandatory elevation notices to town homes lying in Federal Emergency Management Agency-designated flood plains due to Sandy-related damage, which Gillen said was partly the impetus for the audit.
Joining Gillen during the announcement was Oceanside homeowner and contractor Michael Cascio, who was hit with such a notice when, in 2017, he went to the Building Department to legalize past construction that he and previous homeowners had done on his house, including post-Sandy repairs.
He said he waited roughly nine months after supplying officials with the information on the construction, as well as his Sandy-related flood-insurance payout, before receiving a letter in the mail informing him that he would have to elevate his home or lose his FEMA-subsidized flood insurance on the property.
Knowing that house elevations could cost upward of $150,000, and that home-elevation assistance programs such as NY Rising were closed to new applicants, Cascio told the Herald last year that the news had hit him “like a punch to the gut.”
The late notices have been attributed to the process by which the Building Department determines whether a home has been substantially damaged: It sustained flood damage requiring repairs, the cost of which exceeded more than 50 percent of the market value of the home at the time of the storm, according to FEMA guidelines.
FEMA mandates that local governments inspect residents’ homes in the aftermath of a flood to make such determinations, and issue elevation notices if homes have been substantially damaged. But a Herald investigation last year revealed that building officials had not inspected the homes, at least not on an individual basis, instead walking the streets in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 storm, and creating a record — internally referred to as a preliminary damage assessment — based on whether they believed a home had received any damage.
The process shifted the onus onto homeowners to report to building officials what kinds of Sandy-related repairs they had performed before department officials could determine whether they needed to elevate.
In some cases, such as Cascio’s, residents would file permits for construction unrelated to Sandy, only for the application to trigger a cross reference with the home’s preliminary damage assessment, after which they would be asked to provide information on Sandy repairs, and then be told that they would need to elevate.
In other cases, residents had purchased homes, repaired in the aftermath of the storm, only to discover that they too would need to elevate after going to the Building Department for unrelated reasons. It was for these homeowners, in particular, that Gillen said she hoped the proposed audit would find a solution.
“The sad reality is [that] for certain homeowners, they bought a house believing it was in good-enough shape, and did not need more work, or did not need to be raised,” she said.
She reported that department officials had compiled preliminary damage assessments on roughly 13,000 homes after Sandy, but that they had received permit applications for about 4,400 of them, which means that potentially thousands more could receive mandatory elevation notices in the coming years.
“Unfortunately we do not know the full scope of this impact yet,” she said.
Cascio said he understood that the Building Department had likely been overwhelmed in the aftermath of Sandy, but that he would have followed procedures had he known that by not filing permits he would be risking such a disastrous result. He said he hoped the audit would find a solution for homeowners such as himself, perhaps in the form of an appeals process.
“According to FEMA guidelines, there is a process where we can initiate an appeals process,” he said, “and potentially overturn the determination and let us get on with our lives.”