( Source: Elizabeth Skrapits The Citizens’ Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (MCT) — West Pittston flood victims who renovated their homes without required permits might be getting a pass this time, but they won’t the next time the Susquehanna River invades their community.
Those residents will be able to submit their paperwork to get permits retroactively and may be able to get variances from the zoning hearing board to bypass expensive relocation of electrical and heating systems, but it’s a one-time-only deal.
“That seems like really good news for us,” West Pittston flood victim Michael Reiher said.
Reiher got 4½ feet of water on the first floor of his Wyoming Avenue home. He did get a permit before remodeling, but worried he would have to bear the headache and additional expense of having to move his electrical box and gas-fired heating and cooling system out of the basement.
“To have to redo stuff – that’s just uncalled for. It was kind of a scary proposition,” Reiher said.
West Pittston got in trouble in the aftermath of the Sept. 8-9, 2011 Tropical Storm Lee flood when many residents failed to get permits before they rebuilt. The Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped in and noticed the borough wasn’t meeting other requirements, like ensuring residents renovated the way they were supposed to, including raising their electric, heat and air conditioning systems above flood elevations.
“Over the years, we discovered that the ordinances weren’t being followed on the local level,” FEMA Region III spokesman Nick Morici said.FEMA gave West Pittston until Dec. 1 to adopt and enforce a flood management ordinance that meets National Flood Insurance Program standards.
If the borough doesn’t do so, it will be placed on probation, meaning residents would have to pay a $50 surcharge on flood insurance. If FEMA suspends the borough, not only could residents lose their ability to buy federally backed flood insurance, they wouldn’t be able to get grants, loans or other federal assistance after the next flood.
But borough officials have a new, FEMA-compliant floodplain ordinance that is on track to take effect Nov. 1, and West Pittston’s new code enforcement officer and flood plain manager Bill O’Donnell is working with FEMA to straighten out the mess.
“Unfortunately, there were huge mix-ups on what happened and what was said, and it just snowballed,” he said.
O’Donnell estimates about 99 percent of residents hit by the flood have rebuilt or are in the process. There are five or six properties in town where people did nothing at all – they walked away and the banks own them, he said. Five others are on the buyout list for demolition.
In flood zone A, nearest the river, there were 159 structures flooded; 76 of their owners did not get permits, O’Donnell said. There were an additional nine significantly damaged homes that did not have permits, and their owners need to get them as soon as possible.
Borough officials will soon send out letters to residents, asking them to come in and show the paperwork if they got inspections and permits, O’Donnell said.
Flood victims who rebuilt without a permit need to come in and get one – at no cost; the borough is waiving the fees – and might have to go through a few other legalities. Residents need to bring in copies of all the paperwork for work that was done on their homes, O’Donnell said. People who don’t have access to a photocopier can have their documents copied at the borough building.
“All it’s going to cost the borough residents is a small amount of your time,” O’Donnell said.
If the resident rebuilt without a permit, that means there wasn’t an inspection, which means the resident is not in compliance, he said.
A concern of some residents in flood zone A was that they might have to raise electrical boxes, water heaters and heating and air conditioning systems above the base flood elevation, as required by the ordinance, after they had already done their renovations.
If the work is already done, residents will most likely have to go in front of the zoning hearing board and get a variance – but it would be one time only, O’Donnell said. If the house floods again, they will need to meet the flood zone ordinance criteria and raise their electrical, heating and other systems to higher levels or floors.
They would not be “grandfathered” in again. If another disastrous flood happens, people will have to follow the ordinance to the letter, O’Donnell said: “There will be no ifs, ands, or buts.”
Reiher realizes that, but he’s glad residents get a pass this time.
“It’s awesome for us, because we’ve already got stuff done,” he said. “It would have been an unbelievable burden on people.”
If flood victims had been forced to redo the work, there would have been a “mini revolt” against borough officials, Reiher said.
“I just hope they’ve all learned their lesson and enforce stuff from the get-go,” he said.
©2012 The Citizens’ Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)
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