SEA ISLE CITY – John Henry lives on a street lined with century-old homes that bear plaques stating the year each one was built. His twin home, circa 1898, is among the newest on the block.
Or it was until last year, when a three-story duplex that towers over its neighbors was constructed in the 100 block of 45th Street. Two doors away from Henry’s home, which is fronted by a green lawn and shrubs, the looming duplex sits behind a concrete pad, stones and brick pavers that extend from property line to property line, its closest relation to a tree being the utility pole at the curb.
“That building is a whole floor above my house,” Henry told council Tuesday morning during a discussion on six- and seven-bedroom duplexes and some of the issues they cause. “That’s a problem. When that house goes, it’s going to take everything on the block. All these places around it are tinderboxes.”
Henry’s comments came after council read a letter from the Planning Board asking it to reinstate floor-area ratio in new construction and a discussion by council on whether it should get involved in addressing the look of the town.
“I’m troubled by the huge number of these giant houses,” said John Evans of the 200 block of 79th Street. “You’re our team. I don’t see you as the team for the builders. You’re the team for the citizens.”
The letter from the Planning Board had cited visual impact, water and sewer use, parking, fire safety and drainage as causes for concern, and had asked that the city reinstate a floor-area ratio (FAR) of .8 for future construction. Sea Isle City eliminated its .7 FAR – percentage of floor space to lot size -- in 2010.
Neil Byrne, construction and zoning official for the city, said lot coverage has not changed from 35 percent and that the building envelope has not changed from 32 feet. The difference, he said, is that flood zones are driving the heights of the buildings. With a base flood elevation of 11 feet, he said, the result is that construction in low-lying areas can be as tall as 40 feet when measured from the ground to the roof’s peak.
The higher height, he noted, has resulted in a 25-percent discount for homeowners in FEMA's flood insurance program, and, he added, the homes on Henry's street that are 100 years old are no longer in compliance with FEMA regulations.
Joe Freda, a developer, said the Planning Board was “laboring under some false assumptions” in its claims regarding allowable building space and asked council to send the letter back for corrections.
Bill McGinn, a real estate agent, also said the Planning Board letter contained incorrect calculations and that water and sewer usage for new construction built without the constraints of FAR were “very, very close” to those that were built when the city imposed a FAR of .7. He did not, however, provide specifics as to how close that usage was.
“If we don’t like these huge homes, we should wrestle with it now,” said Council President John Divney to Councilman Jack Gibson’s suggestion that the elected officials leave the matter to those working on the Master Plan. “The Planning Board felt it was a concern. I hear a lot of comments in town about these large buildings.”
“Just because it’s what people want doesn’t mean it’s best for the city and the people who are here,” said Councilwoman Mary Tighe, adding she, too, hears the same remarks Divney does.
Council agreed to take up the discussion at an accelerated pace at its next meeting after doing some fact checking.