Friday July 26, 2013

JAMAICA -- To make sure the right decision is being made, the Selectboard postponed signing a buyout agreement until Vermont Legal Aid Jessica Radbord writes a memo for the town lawyer to review and respond to.

"The question is whether or not, by participating in this project, we don't set a precedent that we are not required to then somehow, to reimburse other homeowners or purchase other properties or respond to other uninsured emergencies throughout the town," said Selectboard member Paul Fraser.

On July 24, the Jamaica Selectboard met with former Water Street homeowners and Two Rivers-Outtauquechee Regional Commission Grant Administrator Bob Ennis to discuss the possibility of offering the property owners buyouts after their homes were destroyed in Tropical Storm Irene. Since FEMA deemed the properties ineligible for its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, Two Rivers-Outtauquechee has been working to come up with state funding for the buyouts.

"It's been a rollercoaster ride," said Fraser. "We had to do a lot of soul searching. It's a tough call for everyone and it's a very trying time."

Residents at the meeting came back to that point several times, saying that they felt hopeless after being dropped from that program. According to FEMA, their homes were not in a declared floodplain.

If the agreement is signed, the grantee would be Two Rivers-Outtauquechee and the town would be the sub-grantee. The deal would cost the town about $13,000 to clear and clean the property. Several Selectboard members believe the project will cost less because local contractors have mentioned that they would work at a discount for this particular project.

Fraser has been close to the buyout process since it began. Shortly after Irene, he was appointed the FEMA projects administrator in Jamaica. In that role, Fraser continues to look into matters related to the storm, which still includes the Water Street buyouts although FEMA had dropped it. He made it clear that money is not the issue.

Fraser abstained from voting to avoid a perceived conflict of interest.

Selectboard member Andy Coyne also abstained from voting. He had been the public health officer on the day of the flood and was required to tell residents that they could not go to their homes that were on Ball Mountain Brook. He also was a resident of Water Street.

"I'm an adjacent landowner," said Coyne. "Whichever way it goes, I am in conflict because of what it says in the Selectboard handbook. I can't participate and I'm not obligated to tell what my conflict is. I could tell you as a private citizen. But on the board, I can jeopardize the outcome. That's why I haven't said anything."

Fraser said that if another disaster were to occur in the same place, FEMA may cite the town's use of state money in the past and refuse to help out. The land could then become a liability for the town.

"By isolating it to state money, we believe that insulates us from having FEMA saying, ‘We're not going to repair it if it is destroyed again," Fraser said.

He also brought up the undetermined level of maintenance and care that will be required if the town uses the Water Street land as a greenspace. Another issue voiced by Water Street homeowners whose homes were not damaged by the storm, was their disapproval of using the land for a park. Although members of the community wanted to discuss the future of that land as a greenspace, the board declined as it would depend on if the buyout goes through and it will require a proper warning on an agenda.

One of the main issues that eventually ended up causing the Selectboard to postpone its decision was the FEMA decision to reimburse second homeowners.

"We now have the possibility of reimbursing second homeowners," said Fraser. "We don't know where that's going to stop. If we don't do that, we are subject to lawsuits."

Radbord said she could write up a memo to explain this situation. Jamaica's lawyer will receive a copy and respond to it.

Fraser also mentioned the precedent the Selectboard would be setting for future boards.

"At least three times, that area has been washed away. We would be naive to think that wouldn't happen again. We're thinking, ‘What legacy do we leave to the next board?'" he added. "On the flip side, we're all feeling terrible about what has happened. We have to take care of all of our residents."

One of the previous homeowners said she was surprised by Fraser's comments.

"I haven't heard anything before about precedence," she said. "There's been no communication about precedence and maintenance is not even a consideration, frankly. These are four families' lives. No one communicated that the board would make its final decision tonight."

Fraser made it clear that once FEMA changed its regulations to include second homeowners, second homeowners could go after the town in lawsuits.

"We did not know FEMA was going to change the rules," he continued. "This is new... We didn't think of this in the beginning."

In the original plans, before the properties were not in the floodplain on FEMA maps, FEMA was going to pay 75 percent and the state-funded Community Development Block Grant would pay 25 percent of that. Back then, second homeowners were not included in the HMGP guidelines.

Fraser expressed concern over future lawsuits that would stem from the town's deciding to sign off as a sub-grantee for this potential buyout.

"We don't have the money to support a lawsuit anytime a property is a loss," he said.

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.