To here some tell it, the delays in rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy have everything to do with Congress which, thanks to House Republicans, has been reticent to simply throw money around. But how about some blame for the arcane building codes and zoning regulations which are making rebuilding a Kafkaesque ordeal?
We’d had about a foot of Long Island Sound sloshing around the ground floor of our house in Connecticut, and everyone had the same advice: Rip up the floors and subfloors, and tear out anything—wiring, plumbing, insulation, drywall, kitchen cabinets, bookcases—touched by salt water. All of it had to go, and pronto, too, lest mold set in.
Yet it wasn’t until the workmen we hired had ripped apart most of the first floor that the phrase “building permit” first wafted past us. Turns out we needed one. “What, to repair our own house we need a building permit?”
Before you could get a building permit, however, you had to be approved by the Zoning Authority. And Zoning—citing FEMA regulations—would force you to bring the house “up to code,” which in many cases meant elevating the house by several feet. Now, elevating your house is very expensive and time consuming—not because of the actual raising, which takes just a day or two, but because of the required permits.
Kafka would have liked the zoning folks. There also is a limit on how high in the sky your house can be. That calculation seems to be a state secret, but it can easily happen that raising your house violates the height requirement. Which means that you can’t raise the house that you must raise if you want to repair it. Got that?
There were other surprises. A woman in our neighborhood has two adjoining properties, with a house and a cottage. She rents the house and lives in the cottage. For 29 years she has paid taxes on both. The cottage was severely damaged but she can’t tear it down and rebuild because Zoning says the plots are not zoned for two structures, never mind that for 29 years two property-tax payments were gladly accepted.
You have to wonder how many of these regulations about really about public safety as opposed to creating jobs for government regulators and inspectors.