Weighing One Request, ‘Thinking Long Term’

Eileen Raffo’s cottage at Lazy Point sits low and is vulnerable to storm surges. Ms. Raffo wants to raise the house on a new, higher foundation, but the town trustees are not sure that’s a good idea. Russell Drumm

    Eileen Raffo’s cottage at 252 Shore Road in Amagansett’s Lazy Point community squats low in the dunes, a zig-zag array of sand-catching fences its only defense against eroding storm surge.
    Ms. Raffo wants to “levitate” her house, as Diane McNally, clerk of the East Hampton Town Trustees, quipped during the board’s regular September meeting last week. Although her request to raise her house on pilings may be okay with the trustees, the height of the levitation is the question.
    The land at Lazy Point is owned by the trustees on behalf of the East Hampton public. The houses are privately owned.
    Ms. Raffo’s application asks the trustees to allow her to raise her house so that the subfloor is 14 feet above sea level. Richard Whelan, her attorney from the Land Marks group, told the trustees that her engineer advised a seven-foot height, but “I’m not sure the D.E.C. [State Department of Environmental Conservation] will allow less than 14 feet. We would like to go to 14 feet.”
    Joe Bloecker, a trustee, said he had studied the application and determined that the rise should be more in the order of four feet, which would put the subfloor at six feet above sea level, according to the Town Building Department.
    Tom Preiato is East Hampton’s senior building inspector and also the town’s flood plain administrator. He said on Tuesday that if repairs or renovations are made to over 50 percent of a building located in the flood plain as it exists at Lazy Point, or if a building’s value is increased by over 50 percent, regulations and maps set forth by the Federal Emergency Management Agency require them to be elevated so that the subfloor is 10 feet above sea level. To that elevation New York State has added two more feet of “freeboard,” to make for a required elevation of 12 feet.
    Mr. Preiato said that Ms. Raffo’s plan would involve driving four pilings for a total cost of about $45,000, not enough to trigger state and federal elevation requirements.
    Nonetheless, during last week’s trustee meeting, Mr. Whelan seemed to be positioning his client so that she would not run afoul of federal or state regulations in the future. The trustees did not buy it. They voted unanimously to reject Ms. Raffo’s application.
    Reached after the meeting, Ms. McNally repeated what she told the applicant, that the board was not keen on approving any dramatic changes in the absence of a comprehensive policy regarding protection of shore-front houses and the trustee-owned land they are built on.
    Ms. McNally said the trustees had wanted to go slow to discuss the project with the homeowner before a formal application was filed.
    “Now that the application becomes formal, we are concerned that our decision might put homeowners in jeopardy if their projects are not approved according to FEMA regulations. Mr. Preiato says the Raffo project is not a 50-percent improvement, so don’t worry. But, if it’s not in writing, I have no faith in it,” Ms. McNally said.
    On the other hand, she said the board was concerned that the Lazy Point community — “originally little fishing shacks” — has evolved into “permanent homes.”
    “We don’t want to see McMansions. They are already selling for $1 million on a 50-by-100-foot lot [land the homeowner doesn’t own], prime real estate. Raising the Raffo house will not protect it from erosion. What does my successor do if the house becomes an island? We have to have the ability to think long-term. The more we allow improvements, the more responsibility we have to insure the safety. I’m afraid the scales have been tipped without forethought,” Ms. McNally said. “I don’t want to be pushed to make a quick decision. We’re not going to be pushed when we don’t know if it’s in the best interest of the homeowner or the whole area.”
    Mr. Whelan could not be reached for comment.