JAMAICA -- The four Water Street property owners who had been deemed ineligible for FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program buy-outs will now have the opportunity to receive 75 percent of the value of their homes using newly available Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds.
"It's a really important development," Gov. Peter Shumlin said Tuesday. "I promised we would rebuild Vermont better than (Tropical Storm) Irene found us and that means everybody. I'm really thrilled that we put this package together."
Originally, CDBG-DR funds were going to cover 25 percent of the buy-outs, which would match the funds FEMA would present the Water Street property owners in the event of a buy-out. After being denied once for the program by FEMA, then attempting a benefit cost analysis, the state's Hazard Mitigation Officer Ray Doherty announced that the applications were ineligible because the properties did not meet the requirements for FEMA's HMGP.
The property owners then had a meeting with CDBG representatives, who told them a buy-out could still take place, however, no promises were made, leaving them worried about their futures.
Now, things are starting to look up for them as the new funds have become available in the state.
The Stratton Foundation has also agreed to put an additional $80,000 towards assisting the homeowners.
People who work for the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund are "aware of the situation in Jamaica," said Deputy Commissioner of Department of Economic, Housing and Community Development Jennifer Hollar.
"(The disaster relief fund) welcomes applications from homeowners to their fund for any remaining unmet needs," she said.
"As you know, the four homeowners in Jamaica and one in Hartford have been rejected by FEMA for the buy-out program that should be protecting them," said Shumlin. "So we worked together with the Stratton Foundation, with an extraordinary delegation and my team to ensure that these folks who lost everything they own aren't left penniless and without financial compensation."
He said the delegation included Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch, who all helped to acquire just over $20 million in additional CDBG money for the state.
"We're using a portion of that fund to help us make sure that these homeowners who got rejected by FEMA are taken care of," said Shumlin.
The homeowners as well as the Jamaica Selectboard will now need to decide if they want to move forward on the CDBG buy-outs. Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission will be administering the money and help the town go through the process of buying the land.
It will still take "a number of months," said Hollar, because there will be grant agreements, attorney documents and other reviews before any further action will take place.
If the town buys the property, the homeowners will receive the money afterwards. Deductions will be made "for certain assistances (the homeowners have) already received," said Hollar.
"The homeowners then will have the money to use to move on to the next step of their lives," she said. "We're pleased to be able to offer that to the town and homeowners. They've been through a lot of ups and downs and disappointments."
Hollar said at the state level, they "wanted to make absolutely sure we could hold the commitment."
Ninety property buy-outs have been approved by FEMA out of 131 submitted for funding from the HMGP in Vermont. Approvals were granted for homes in Barre City, Bethel, Bolton, Brandon, Brattleboro, Bridgewater, Burlington, Chester, Danby, Grafton, Granville, Hartford, Londonderry, Middlesex, Newfane, Northfield, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Readsboro, Rockingham, Rochester, Royalton, Sharon, Stockbridge, Wardsboro and Wilmington.
"We received an e-mail today from the Vermont Community Development Program and Two Rivers saying they are pleased to be able to commit 75 percent of the cost," said Jamaica Selectboard Chairwoman Alexa Clark. "They want to come to a Selectboard meeting, so I suggested they come to the next one."
On March 25, the board will meet to discuss the possibility of going through with the buy-outs. An update will be given to board members on what the next step will be for going through with the buy-outs.
There is still some concern over total costs for the proposed buy-outs.
"The town has to make sure it doesn't get a lot of the costs," said Clark. "Our goal is to keep the cost as close to zero as possible. We need to know that's correct."
Clark said the Selectboard wants to make sure the town won't have the responsibility of removing some of the buildings, which are "a barn and a bit of the house that's left."
"If we're going to own the property, I don't believe the town will want to see buildings falling apart on (it)," said Clark.
Dave Kaneshiro, who owned a home on Water Street, was happy to receive word from Two Rivers that the buy-outs would be possible if the town and property owners want to move forward.
"The light at the end of my tunnel of HOPE is getting brighter!!!!" he wrote in an e-mail to the Reformer on Tuesday.
Hollar told the Reformer that the state is committed to helping "those who lost the most."
"(The buy-outs) will restore the flood plains to give the rivers room during storm events and it (will give) the community resources to clear away reminders of the devastation and destruction of the storm," she said.
Hollar mentioned another property owner that had applied for FEMA HMGP funds just like the Water Street property owners. This Hartford resident had applied for the HMGP funds at the state level and the state "didn't forward it to FEMA," because it didn't meet the program's requirements.
She said that CDBG funds are still available to people who are in similar situations since the storm.
"Obviously, FEMA has been extraordinarily helpful in Vermont," said Shumlin. "We win some and we lose some. It's really critical that these folks, who lost their homes, belongings and family photos, should be taken care of."
He mentioned that after Irene, these property owners had "salvaged small parts of their past from the West River."
Shumlin was proud of the work at the state level as well as in the community.
"This is another example of Vermonters coming up to the plate when they need help," said Shumlin. "It doesn't work like this everywhere. In Vermont, we have a lot to be proud of."
Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.