Homeowners trying to repair or rebuild after Sandy have endured long waits to receive insurance checks or government aid and contractors have more work than they can actually do. Then, the last big hurdle can be obtaining the necessary approvals and permits from towns' zoning and building departments.
"It's just one thing after another,” said Greg Moisan, who didn’t receive the permits to elevate his Sandy-damaged home in Point Pleasant, N.J., until the day before work was supposed to begin. He says it took repeated visits to his town’s building department and significant deadline pressure on his part.
“Though I've heard a lot about how we're going to reduce paperwork — ‘we're going to try to give people a break’ — we haven't seen any of that,” said Moisan.
Moisan and his wife had recently finished renovating the house when Sandy struck. To rebuild after the storm, they went through the same applications and approval process. He also estimates he spent roughly $5,000 in fees.
There are some things about the rebuilding process that have gotten easier as a result of Sandy. The Department of Environmental Protection has waived many of its permits and fees, which are usually required in addition to town permits in coastal areas. Now, as long as towns sign off on rebuilding plans, the DEP automatically will as well. Additionally, homeowners can jack up their homes to meet new FEMA flood elevation requirements without getting special variances to exceed local height restrictions.
However, for the most part, the zoning and permitting process at the town level is just as it always has been — except the offices are significantly busier.
“The permit process is very difficult,” said Shelley, a contractor working on about 20 homes in the Ortley Beach section of Toms River and Brick, N.J. She didn’t want to use her last name because she worries her permit applications might be put at the bottom of the pile if she complains about the process.
Shelley said getting an approval can be time-consuming, often held up by miscommunication or mistakes. They could be “simple things,” like being told the platform for an air conditioning unit is missing from the plans she submitted when she says it was, in fact, present on the plan. She does think the process has improved lately, though the office still seems overwhelmed by the increased demand.
Toms River has issued 10,000 permits of various types since last November — about double the typical demand, according to Ken Anderson, one of the town’s construction officials. Moreover, applications are only increasing, especially for new-home construction, as residents who have demolished their old homes get ready to break ground on new ones.
To meet the increased demand, Toms River has hired additional staff and increased the hours. Anderson says the average wait time for a permit has grown by just a week since the storm and is still within the 20-day timeframe mandated by the state.
“My staff, all of them have been doing A-plus [work], without a doubt” said Anderson.
Still, he says most people may not understand the amount of work his office has.
“They're one application among thousands,” he said. “But I understand their emotions. They've been out of the house as long as they have and they finally get to a point where they've decided to rebuild or elevate. They have their plans in their hand. We're just one more hurdle.”
Before homeowners can get their building permits, they have to go through engineering and zoning. That's a separate process. And if they need a zoning review, that can be another couple weeks.
“But I think if they come here and stand in the lobby and see the kind of activity this department is handling, they understand that they have to wait,” Anderson added. “It's just the nature of the beast right now.”
It's never fun, but Anderson says all these permits and inspections are necessary to make sure rebuilding is done right.