The results of the first federal property buyout for victims of storm Sandy are likely to mean, among other changes, that in the next few years, one shoreline neighborhood in West Haven could all but disappear.
The buyout of 12 homeowners in the Old Field Creek neighborhood of West Haven – a block or so from Long Island Sound – means that the homes or businesses on their property will be purchased by the government and destroyed, and that the parcels will never be built on again.
“Great news to receive just before Christmas,” said Sharie Roy, in all sincerity. The basement of Roy’s home, which backs onto Old Field Creek, was flooded in Tropical Storm Irene. She rebuilt just in time to get flooded again in Sandy. The second flood was even worse – nearly up to her first floor.
“I can’t live here and feel safe,” she said. “We didn’t get hit this year – thank heaven. I just can’t imagine in two or three years getting hit again. I couldn’t go through that again.”
The buyout program is called the Emergency Watershed Protection Program – Floodplain Easement and works through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an environmental arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The process for Roy and her neighbors will play out for another two years or more. During that time the homes will be appraised, bought, demolished and the land around them restored to the floodplain it was before parcels were filled in and developed.
Owners will be able to opt out at any time. Their biggest concern – aside from the emotional angst of giving up their homes – has been that the appraisal will be too low to cover their costs, such as paying off a mortgage, with enough left to relocate.
The conservation service had authorized $124.8 million for floodplain easements in 12 states hit by Sandy. Connecticut officials had been worried that the two hardest hit states, New York and New Jersey, would scoop up the bulk of the funds.
But there were few applicants and nearly all were approved. Municipalities generally don’t like shoreline buyouts, which take away some of their highest property taxes. Property owners must apply through a sponsor, usually their city or town, and that can be difficult to achieve.
The conservation service program, however, was expected to attract applicants because it pays up to 100 percent of a property’s pre-storm appraised value. A similar program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency pays only up to 75 percent.
After Irene, FEMA’s program had seven applications for buyouts, only two of which were even on the shoreline.
The conservation service’s program wound up awarding only $19.2 million in the three states that applied. Connecticut received the most – $7.532 million spread among five communities. New York received $7.515 million for one community, and New Jersey received $4.1 million in two.
In Connecticut, only West Haven included homes. Bridgeport received $1.266 million for five city-owned parcels along Johnson’s Creek it wants to turn into living shoreline. Madison will receive $1.9 million to protect 256 acres of salt marsh. Also approved was an easement around the historic trolley tracks and museum in East Haven and Branford. And Old Colony Beach Club in Old Lyme was approved for funds to restore a creek and the land around it.
Because of the anemic response, the conservation service is running another round of applications in January. Those homeowners in West Haven who were turned down — there were seven of them — are being encouraged to apply again. Generally they were rejected, not because the flooding they experienced was not severe enough, but because their applications were considered isolated. They stand a greater chance of a buyout if those who live around them also apply, enabling a larger swath of land to be reclaimed.
In the meantime, Sharie Roy knows she still faces a long haul as well as the possibility that the finances may not be acceptable.
“If I can’t pay my mortgage off, I can’t move,” she said. “I’m trying to just take a breath and cross each bridge when I come to it.”
“It warms my heart that this is going to go back to open space for the wildlife and nature,” she said. “A lot of good things have come from a very bad situation.”