Alternative sought for Water Street buy-outs

Friday February 1, 2013

JAMAICA -- On Thursday, Water Street property owners, whose homes were destroyed in Tropical Storm Irene, met to discuss options to the FEMA buy-outs that they had been hoping to secure, but have not been able to.

"We're committed to finding ways to make sure those buy-outs move forward," said Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Economic, Housing and Community Development Jennifer Hollar.

She went on to talk about how the state plans to assist the town and property owners.

Hollar emphasized that the purpose of this meeting was to start working with homeowners and resources, and to act as if the buy-outs were moving forward.

"(The Community Development Block Grant program) was not designed to do this, but the state is trying to support homeowners," said Hollar.

Although there has been no official word from FEMA that the buy-outs have been denied, the research has been done and State Hazard Mitigation Officer Ray Doherty announced that the applications would be deemed ineligible because the properties did not meet the requirements for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

Benefit cost analysis tests were done, which are used to prove that the site is historically prone to flood, and that significant damage had been done in that area prior to this event.

FEMA has until March 1 to determine the applications' eligibility, but it may announce it sooner, since the results of the benefit cost analysis showed that there were not enough historical events to prove that section of Water Street had been an area that repeatedly flooded.

The property owners have been waiting over a year in hopes of getting a 75-percent buy-out for their land from FEMA. CDBG funds were going to cover the remaining 25 percent if homeowners received a buy-out from FEMA.

Options were discussed on Thursday afternoon that would enable the town to find the funds to buy out the properties itself. This process would give the property owners individual assessments, after looking at the value of the home before the flood and each mortgage.

The CDBG Disaster Recovery funds would coincide with financial assistance from other organizations. Private banks were mentioned as well as the Stratton Foundation, which has already provided assistance to the Water Street property owners.

Kevin Geiger, from the Two Rivers-Ottaquechee Regional Commission, talked to the property owners and the Jamaica Selectboard about the steps that would need to be taken. His organization helps the state handle disaster recovery.

First, the town would need to do appraisals of each property. It would look at how much the property was worth before Irene. Then, there would be a title search and a duplication of benefits test, which would look at any money the property owners received from FEMA or insurance companies.

The town could then buy the property and demolish what's left. It was mentioned by Irene Recovery Chief Paul Fraser that there is part of a barn left on one property, along with a well and sewer system.

At the time of the closing, the previous homeowners would receive the funds from a buy-out. This is when the grant would be closed. Any additional financial assistance the property owners would need, they would have to seek from other programs or organizations.

The use of the land would have its restrictions. No structures can be built on the property except for restrooms. However, trails or a park would be allowable as well as a fishing access. Trees could be planted there as well.

The town most likely would be unable to sell the property to a private company.

This process could take an estimated additional three to four months before the town could start cleaning up the properties.

The Selectboard was worried about the cost to the town.

"We don't want to incur the same cost and not be reimbursed again," said Selectboard Chairwoman Alexa Clark, referring to the HMGP process.

Hollar said this new effort is to hopefully coordinate the CDBG funds with organizations like the Stratton Foundation to make it all possible.

Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany volunteered his organization to help the town and property owners with paperwork as well as with coming up with a plan on how to use that land once it is owned by the town.

"If there are other things we can help with, let us know," he said.

Clark said that the board didn't mind paperwork, but would need assistance with the appraisals.

It had been mentioned, too, that even if the buy-outs from FEMA went through, it would still take up to three or four months to complete the rest of the process.

"The state wants to help with buy-outs," Hollar said at the end of the public session. "It helps communities move forward. It helps individuals and homeowners get the most and it moves dangerous structures."

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


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