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Post-Sandy Floodplain Buyout Programs Are Taking Off in the New York Region

Eric Goldstein

Posted October 29, 2013

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Slowly but surely, the Cuomo Administration has been advancing an historic initiative that offers economic incentives to residential property owners around the state if they are willing to move their homes and families out of the region’s most dangerous flood zones.  As this initiative rolls out and hopefully expands, it holds the potential to become one of the most transformative governmental programs initiated by New York State in response to super-storms Sandy and Irene.

The concept behind the initiative is simple -- property owners are offered the pre-storm fair market value for their houses (with some added incentives possible), if they agree to relocate out of harm’s way.  Properties acquired would be permanently set aside as open space and turned into parks, wetlands or similar uses; this would enable the parcels to absorb floodwaters and protect inland communities during future storms. 

The buyout concept makes sense in terms of public safety, environmental betterment, and fiscal prudence.  On the safety front, the program moves families out the most dangerous flood zones and transforms such lands into water-absorbing buffers; these are areas that experts know will be subject to multiple and in some cases life-threatening floods in years to come.  From an environmental standpoint, returning these parcels to wetlands status or converting them to recreational use produces year-round benefits to community residents and wildlife.  And fiscally, the buyout model protects taxpayers who might otherwise have to subsidize repeated rebuilding of such homes and their adjacent infrastructure.

The program here is being paid for primarily from federal FEMA funds and a 25% contribution from New York State. Earlier this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo indicated that 400 million dollars would ultimately be made available for buyouts throughout the state.  The New York initiative is taking off in three areas – Staten Island, Long Island and the Catskill region.

Implementation is most advanced in Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, where strong community support has been a driving force behind the initiative.  Nearly 200 homeowners in that neighborhood have signed up to take advantage of the buyout program. The first Oakwood Beach closing has already taken place.  According to local press reports, up to 510 property owners in this area may in coming months take advantage of the state’s buyout offers. And community interest in the program along Staten Island’s South Shore continues to build. 

 

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Property owners of homes destroyed in Oakwood Beach, Staten Island (pictured above) are among those who are taking advantage of a forward-looking buyout program initiated by Governor Andrew Cuomo.  Under the program, local residents can receive pre-Sandy fair market value to move their families out of dangerous flood zones.

 

New York’s voluntary buyout program has also been gearing up on Long Island.  Several hundred solicitation letters have been sent out to residents whose homes are located in flood zone areas considered by officials to be especially precarious.  These homeowners own properties in Lindenhurst, Oakdale, Sayville, Bayport, Patchogue, Mastic Beach and Flanders.  (In addition, thirty properties on Fire Island are also being considered for federally-assisted buyouts.)

A similar buyout program is getting off the ground in three upstate New York counties in response to Tropical Storm Irene, which ravaged the Catskill region in 2011.  This program has been developed by State officials, local governmental representatives and other stakeholders, including New York City.  Over the next 24 months, several hundred property owners in parts of Greene, Ulster and Delaware counties are expected to sell their flood zone properties at pre-storm market value and relocate their families to safer ground. 

Governor Cuomo has been forthright in supporting the buyout option for property owners whose residences were battered by Sandy and/or Irene.  “There are some parcels that Mother Nature owns,” the Governor rightly proclaimed as he announced this program in his State-of-the-State address last January. 

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Governor Christie and his Department of Environmental Protection have been advancing a voluntary buyout program of their own.  Under the state’s Blue Waters initiative, properties in Sayreville and South River, which have been subject to repeated floods from the Raritan and South rivers, have been designated as eligible for acquisition by the state.  To date, close to three hundred homes in these communities have been slated for purchase.  Property owners seeking to relocate would be paid from a $300 million dollar federal-state funding pot.

To be sure, even if more than one thousand properties are acquired in New York State and a similar number is reached in New Jersey’s buyout program, these numbers would still consitute a small portion of the many thousands of homes that were destroyed or significantly damaged when Sandy and Irene barreled into the region.

Still, the start-up of these buyout programs in both states is a noteworthy development.  For one thing, the buyout concept is still relatively new.  (The earliest federally funded buyouts took place following environmental contamination incidents in Love Canal, New York and Times Beach, Missouri three decades ago.  What appears to be the largest federally funded flood buyout occurred in Missouri, following the Midwest floods of 1993; then Governor Mel Carnahan spearheaded a program to help acquire 4,800 properties in 57 flood-affected communities.)  Over time, however, the anticipated success of buyout programs in these initial communities is likely to spur interest in such assistance from property owners in other dangerous flood zones.

Thus, a big challenge for Governors Cuomo and Christie (and for New York City’s next Mayor) will be to highlight the economic advantages of this option for property owners and for taxpayers, to offer such programs to a larger number of property owners in all of their state’s most at-risk flood zones, and to take these programs up to scale before the next big storm hits.

In the weeks to come, my NRDC colleague Johanna Dyer and I will be completing a report on the New York region’s buyout program.  Among other things, it will set forth specific recommendations for taking the buyout programs in the New York region to the next level. 

Meanwhile, our thoughts today are will all those who lost loved ones in Hurricane Sandy and those who are still suffering from the storm’s lingering after-effects.

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