Coastal Communities Adapt to Change

Jun 18, 2013

As the region prepares for a new hurricane season, Connecticut’s shoreline is still suffering from the devastation of previous storms. Irene and Sandy have changed the nature of coastal neighborhoods in Fairfield County.

Fairfield Beach is a neighborhood in transition. Along entire stretches of this town’s coast you can see five, ten houses in a row that have been boarded up or marked for demolition with red paint. And then, right next door, life seems normal. With some small exceptions.

“We had a lawn. This is turf," says Dawn Cobb, looking out at the backyard patio of her spacious, brightly-colored home on the beach. "We’ve decided to do turf. The sand and the water won’t ruin the grass again, so we’re giving it a try.”

We’re looking out at Long Island Sound from Cobb's sunroom, which is the only room that really sustained a lot of damage during Sandy.

Cobb says she and her husband filed nearly $60,000 in claims from homeowner’s and flood insurance. They got about half of what they asked for and paid the rest out-of-pocket. And that number was on the low end for many people I talked to on Fairfield Beach. A little farther inland, Gail Bushell has been here eleven years and will be paying around $100,000 out-of-pocket for repairs.

If a storm like Sandy happens again, she says, “we can afford it financially, but I don’t think we can afford it emotionally.”

Many others were forced out altogether.

“I know a number of people who had to move after living here, virtually 30,40, 50 years, just because they couldn’t afford to rebuild their homes," says Ken Lee. 

The water came within inches of Lee’s front step. Many of his neighbors, who’ve lived here for decades in modest homes that were never raised above the floodplain, weren’t so lucky. And now that new federal standards are forcing many on the beach to raise their homes, the costs – as much as $100,000 if not more – are just too high.

“If you’re a person who was retired and living on a fixed income, to rebuild your house and comply with the FEMA regulations is not a possible thing," Lee says. 

Fairfield’s economic development director Mark Barnhart says there are a lot of homes that aren’t the mega-mansions people think about when they imagine waterfront housing. Nearly 200 homes that registered for government assistance after Sandy qualify for elderly tax relief, meaning seniors with moderate to low incomes live there. Most of them will have to move out if they haven’t already.  

“This neighborhood will be changed significantly as a result of the storm," says Barnhart. "Some of the more modest homes will no longer be there, the older, more long-standing residents may no longer be there.”

Realtors say the prices for Connecticut’s waterfront homes have dropped 15-20%. So builders are buying them up at a discount, and putting up bigger, taller homes. Built by people who can afford to raise them. And it’s the same story in Milford, where one-fifth of the shoreline housing stock was damaged during Sandy.

Elizabeth Wright, a retired art teacher, says what’s happening now is a far cry from what living on the water used to be.

 “After the heydays, after the depression, the hurricane of 38, the areas all were just aging cottages," Wright says. "So the reputation was that, if you lived along the water, you were poor."

Since then, of course, living on the beach has become expensive. And now, Sandy is accelerating that gentrification process even more. Still, many people are draining their life’s savings to try and stay in their homes. Wright just opened up an art gallery a few hundred yards from Long Island Sound. She won’t be able to get flood insurance, so she and her artists have an agreement.

"When we know a bad storm is coming, come and get your stuff," Wright says. "Or I’ll put it in my car and I’ll take it to some high ground, and we’ll just empty the place out.”

And once the next storm is over, the neighborhood she comes back to will likely be changed once again.