By HEATHER NELLIS
Recorder News Staff
FONDA -- Montgomery County flood victims ousted from their homes by Tropical Storms Irene and Lee could have their properties bought out by the state and federal government.
After a lengthy application process initiated in January 2012 by county Senior Planner Doug Greene, seven properties have been tentatively-approved for the acquisition program.
Four are in the town of Florida, including one on Youngs Corner Road, and three in the hamlet of Fort Hunter, Greene said. The other three are in Charleston's hamlet of Burtonville.
"According to the correspondence I've received, the buyouts are basically approved, pending corrections," said Greene, noting the corrections were requested by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) through the state Emergency Management Office (SEMO).
"It's been a long process for these people," Greene said of the affected property owners. "There were moments I didn't think it was going to happen. There were a number of times I got information from the SEMO saying, 'Sorry.'"
Under the buyout program, municipalities sponsor projects to buy affected private property, acquire the titles, and then demolish the structures, according to SEMO's website.
"This is the most effective form of mitigation because it permanently removes people and structures from harm's way," according to a fact sheet on SEMO's website.
By law, the parcel becomes public property that must be forever maintained as open space.
The community can use it for parks and other public uses, but cannot sell it to private individuals, or develop it.
Seventy-five percent of buyouts are funded by FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and the state last month committed to pick up the remaining local share using recently-approved Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program funds.
According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office, approximately 1,143 properties in 17 affected counties have been processed for buyouts.
The estimated total project cost for the buyouts is just over $194 million, which puts the 25 percent non-federal share cost at approximately $48.5 million, according to Cuomo's office.
The process started when affected counties were given opportunities to provide a letter of intent in three phases, the first starting in January 2012, with the last due by June 30, 2012.
These delineated specific mitigation factors for affected communities, including buyouts for badly damaged properties, according to SEMO's website.
"That initial application was pretty straightforward, and a simple umbrella for the towns," Greene said.
Once that was approved, it moved toward a much more "involved" application phase, Greene said.
According to a fact sheet on SEMO's website, qualifying properties were those which were located in presidentially-declared disaster areas, and sustained "substantial damages ... that equal or exceed 50 percent of its fair market value prior to the event."
The property additionally had to be located within the 100-year flood plain.
The Burtonville and Youngs Corners Road property applications were "straightforward." They were severely damaged, and in the 100-year flood plain, Greene said. "But the three Fort Hunter properties had their own sets of issues and problems, so there were difficulties in meeting the requirements."
The structures were severely damaged, but not in the 100-year flood plain, Greene said. And one applicant had multiple structures, but the primary structure wasn't damaged over the 50 percent threshold.
"We had to go through two or three appeals, and a couple of state engineers were helpful in looking for anyway to package the applications as a collective whole. They used calculations to convince FEMA of their eligibility," Greene said.
Florida town Supervisor William Strevy gave credit to Greene for his tenacity through the process.
"I had a feeling none of them were going to go through," Strevy said. "If it weren't for Doug, I don't know that it would have worked out for these people. The town would have had to hire an engineer, and there's no way to say they would have been as persistent as he was, or had the same end-result."
Greene said neither Florida nor Charleston were in the position to prepare the applications, due to a lack of resources and equipment.
"This has been a long process for these people, but I kept telling them to be patient, and hang in there," Greene said. "I kept pushing to keep things alive."
Though the Burtonville properties may have been cut-and-dry, Charleston Supervisor Robert Sullivan noted it's still been quite some time for the process to move ahead.
"This has been quite exasperating to the victims," Sullivan said, noting two of them moved out-of-county, and one moved south. "I'm sure it's equally frustrating to the neighbors, who've had to look at the property for a year-and-a-half."
With the tentative approval from SEMO and FEMA, Greene said the next step will require appraisal of the structures' pre-flood value, "a critical stage." That will require negotiation with the property owners, who would have to approve of the value before accepting it for compensation.
"If everything moves forward, then there will be a closing, and the land will be designated and transferred to the towns," Greene said. "But nothing is finalized until the closing."
Sullivan said the Burtonville property owners will weigh their options.
"Until the closing, they have an opportunity to decide what's in their better interest," he said. "Apparently, their insurance companies made attractive offers for settlements, so they might decide to keep their properties. They could build on it, but they'll never get a bank loan, and I'm sure the flood insurance is too expensive for them."
One of the Fort Hunter structures is a county-owned property that went to auction last month. The home is condemned, yet netted a $15,000 bid. The bid was rejected by the Board of Supervisors, though.
Strevy said he received an angry phone call from the bidder, but said the bidder was obligated to do their "due diligence" in researching the property.
"If we hadn't pulled it, then what?" Strevy said.
Questions in connection with this story to a FEMA spokesman at the agency's New York City office were directed toward SEMO.
"New York State runs the program," the spokesman said. "It's not our territory."
Multiple inquiries submitted to multiple SEMO spokesmen were not returned.