The Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to help Essex County acquire up to 26 properties damaged by last year's Tropical Storm Irene.
In a notice of intent issued this week, FEMA said it will fund the "voluntary acquisition and demolition" of 26 homes that were substantially damaged by flood waters from the August 2011 storm. The properties include 19 in the town of Jay, four in the town of Keene and one each in the towns of North Hudson, Westport and Essex, according to Essex County Community Resources Director Mike Mascarenas.
All of the properties are located within the 100-year floodplain of the AuSable and Bouquet rivers and East Mill Brook. FEMA will pay the county $2.7 million to acquire the properties, demolish structures, and then perform grading and seeding.
"Deed restrictions will prohibit future development and sites will be maintained in perpetuity as open space under municipal ownership," the letter reads. "The alternative to acquisition/demolition would be to leave these flood-prone properties in private ownership for the potential repair and rebuilding of structures or for future development. The proposed project will remove structures from the floodplain and create open space to restore the beneficial values served by floodplains and wetlands."
After the county receives its funding from FEMA, it will purchase the 26 properties from the homeowners. Then the county will become the landowner and take on responsibility for demolition and restoration; those costs are included in the $2.7 million provided by FEMA.
"It doesn't turn into a burden on our part," Mascarenas said. "What will happen after that is we'll then turn it over to the town where the property is located, so it will become town property in the end."
Earlier this year, more than 50 property owners signed on to the county's property acquisition application. Mascarenas said many of those people have since decided to rebuild. Others, he said, "wanted to get on with their lives.
"It really is a personal decision," Mascarenas said. "Some of these people are attached to their homes, and it's a hard decision to give it up. But some people don't have a choice, either: Their house is totally destroyed. They're paying rent and a mortgage on a house they can't live in, paying property tax on those properties still. They're trying to make ends meet. (For) some of those people, it will be a great relief not to have that burden anymore."
Mascarenas said homeowners will receive about 75 percent of their properties' appraised value, so for a home worth $200,000, the owner will get about $150,000.
"For some people, it will absolutely work, while for others, it absolutely will not," he said.
Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas said the buyouts will hurt the town's tax base, although he doesn't blame homeowners for accepting them. He said if each of the 19 property owners paid an average of $3,000 in property taxes, that's a $57,000 loss to the town. Jay's total town budget is about $1.2 million, so that loss would be close to 5 percent.
"Overall, it's going to have an impact on our water and sewer district; it's going to have an impact on the school district," Douglas said.
Douglas said some of the older homeowners who accepted the buyout have already relocated out of the area. Others, he said, plan to stay in the town and rebuild on higher ground.
"It has an impact on our identity," Douglas said. "You lose generations of families who raised their families here and went to school here and those sort of things, and it's sad. But the reason we supported the application is we couldn't continue to put them in harm's way."
A 15-day public comment period is currently under way. Mascarenas said it gives people an opportunity to express concerns about historic properties or properties located in wetland areas before structures are destroyed.
Comments can be mailed to FEMA Region II, Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, Leo O'Brien Federal Building, 11A Clinton Square, Room 742, Albany, NY 12206-5421 or via email to FEMA-R2-HMA@fema.dhs.gov.