What you are seeing here are two side-by-side condo/townhouses built to V-Zone construction normally only found with Beach Front or Bay Front constructions. These homes, however, are in the middle of the block. The living spaces in each of these buildings total 105% of the lot size.
The following letter was written to the Mayor of Sea Isle City and the City Council in an effort to offer information and a solution to the problem of “Monster Houses.” The same day it was sent, the Sea Isle City Council voted on an Ordinance reducing allowable Floor Area Ratio to .8 percent in an effort to end the building of Monster Houses and satisfy the voices of those who complained about them. They voted this time in favor of the Ordinance but it is not law yet. This all came about very quickly. I hope the following letter was read by all it was sent to and the contents taken seriously by the minds of those who we trust to make the best decisions for our city. I hope they are not acting in haste and are listening to all the people of Sea Isle City. Most importantly, I hope their votes are not based on personal preferences of their own. The photos included in this blog are of 4 monster houses that I found in the lower lying areas of town. Some of them get as much as $6,000 a week in rent and they are west of Landis Ave. There are beach front rentals that don’t get that much. These homes’ living space is 105% of the lot size. The designers of these homes took advantage of the elimination of Floor Area Ratio creating big, boxy and unattractive buildings that are objectionable. Here is the letter received by the City:
“Dear Mayor, Council Members and City Administrator,
If I may, I wanted to share a few thoughts I have in regards to the much publicized “Monster Houses”. I thank you in advance for taking the time to read and take into consideration my thoughts.
Five years ago, City Council passed revised zoning ordinances for the purpose of advancing compliance with FEMA and the NFIP. The main goal was to eliminate below base flood elevation grade level storage rooms (that were being improved into “bonus room” living spaces) by allowing these rooms to be built at the required base flood elevation height. To accommodate this goal, zoning codes were revised allowing roof heights to be raised two feet and the elimination of the floor area ratio. I believe this has been a very effective remedy to eliminate further non-complying bonus rooms, as evidenced by the flood insurance discounts the city procured for their property owners through the NFIP CRS program. I am certain that every property owner is grateful for the hard work the city officials put forth to bring the flood insurance discounts to fruition.
As a builder of many single and two family homes in Sea Isle City, we found the zoning changes to be well received by our clients and the surrounding owners of the properties we have re-developed. In the spirit of the zoning changes, we were able to take our prototype two unit, 5 bedroom condominium and simply raise the foyers and bonus rooms (into a complying family rooms) to accommodate the city’s goals. Additional bedrooms or floors did not need to be added to produce safe and enjoyable homes. With maintaining the 35% lot coverage requirement, the volume or footprint of the building was not changed except for the additional two feet in building height. The raised family rooms did increase the floor area ratio to approximately 90% of the lot size; however I do not believe these are the style buildings being described as “Monster Houses” that many property owners are up in arms about.
I believe the essence of the Monster Houses started with the changing of base flood height requirements after SANDY. The FEMA advisory maps changed some A-zones to V-zones which initiated the construction of four story buildings on inner island streets. These buildings provide for grade level parking with three full floors above and with as many as 8-9 bedrooms per unit. With three floors conforming to the 35% lot coverage, the floor area of this style building totals 105% of the lot size. Now that it seems FEMA has resolved this problem with the soon to be adopted preliminary maps, some of the four story looking buildings no longer will be built. However, due to the increase of the base flood elevation heights in certain areas, it is still possible to squeeze in four story buildings in some low lying A-zone areas. These buildings are not in keeping with the purpose and intent of the zoning changes made five years ago.
My concern is this; will reverting back to a floor area ratio be taking a step backwards? To maintain 70-80% FAR, I anticipate new designs to include grade levels being primarily used for parking and the 2nd & 3rd floors for living spaces. The oversized grade level garage may be attractive to property owners as areas to partition off for recreational and/or other habitable uses.
There is much more to consider than what I have mentioned above. For example, beach front V-zone style homes have typically been built in the past as elevated three story buildings with parking underneath. These properties have been the unintended beneficiary of the zoning code changes made 5 years ago. Now beach front V-zone homes can be built two feet higher with three full floors at the 35% lot coverage or at a 105% FAR. Also, there are other areas with undersized lots such as in Townsend Inlet where currently larger single family homes with added bedrooms can be built without the need to accommodate additional off-street parking.
One criticism sometimes mentioned is the lack of uniformity of homes and neighborhoods in Sea Isle City. Perhaps changing zoning codes every 5 years or so can create uniformity problems. I also think there are areas in Sea Isle City that differ from other areas and therefore should be treated differently. I do not think there is a one zoning code fits all.
I believe the recent “Monster House” concern is an opportunity to address some major challenges in making Sea Isle City an even more enjoyable vacation destination. It is my suggestion to consider an immediate ban of 4 story buildings from being built in low lying A-zones. This would provide an immediate action to address some of the concerns and may allow for additional time to effectively address all concerns. Perhaps a task force of city officials, realtors, builders/developers and concerned property & business owners can be assembled to work together in unison to devise a plan that suits the best interest of the Sea Isle City community as a whole.
I thank you for your time and consideration.