Suffolk prepared to use eminent domain for 41 oceanfront Fire Island homes

Aerial views showing debris from destroyed oceanfront homes Aerial views showing debris from destroyed oceanfront homes on Davis Park, Fire Island after superstorm Sandy on Oct. 31, 2012. Photo Credit: John Roca

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Suffolk is prepared to use the power of eminent domain to acquire 41 oceanfront Fire Island homes that stand in the way of a new storm-shielding dune -- but hopes to avoid taking such a drastic step.

County Public Works Commissioner Gilbert Anderson said a few property owners refusing federally funded buyouts could imperil the project, forcing Suffolk's hand.

"Theoretically, you could have a couple of houses stalling the project for their community because they want a better price for their land. It's a real fear I have," he said.

Anderson said the Army Corps of Engineers, which has drafted a $162 million dune-building plan for Fire Island, has made it clear Suffolk might have to condemn properties.

"If it's something that has to go to condemnation, it has to go to condemnation -- and I hope it doesn't," he said.

The emergency project was carved out of the sweeping $700 million Fire Island-to-Montauk Point flood-protection project, or FIMP, funded with federal Sandy aid.

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This autumn, Fire Island's new dunes should start rising on public lands at the east and west ends -- far behind the December / January start first planned, due largely to a maze of required federal and state approvals.

Last year, hurricanes or nor'easters could have wrought much more damage because many of the dunes, wetlands and other storm defenses superstorm Sandy obliterated in October 2012 haven't been rebuilt.

The delays intensified the uncertainty for Fire Islanders whose properties would be demolished under the Army Corps' draft environmental assessment issued last month.

The assessment put the cost of buying out the 41 properties, mainly in Ocean Bay Park and Davis Park, at $46 million. Homeowners will get the current value, not the pre-Sandy price first promised.

Those facing buyouts must resolve complicated questions, including whether to repair damage to ensure they get the highest price -- only to watch their houses be demolished.

The draft plan dooms Ana Kenger's Ocean Beach home, which had to be returned to its foundation after Sandy's assault.

She didn't undertake needed major repairs, relying on officials who said buyouts would be based on pre-storm prices. Now, worried about a low appraisal, Kenger is questioning her decision.

"It's a lot of money invested and a lot of work, so it's kind of scary because you don't know what's going to happen," she said.

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Kenger, 57, agrees with Fire Islanders who say the planned dunes are a crucial safeguard but finds it irrational to rebuild a home slated for the wrecking ball. "It's a waste of time and energy and money; it doesn't make any sense at all."

That is not the preferred outcome, said a state official familiar with the issues. "Depending on how the program is structured, you could have kind of perverse things like that happening. We want to avoid things like that," he said. "We have to have an approach that's fundamentally fair."

The plan also would push six oceanfront homes back on their lots, while decks or pools on 18 properties would be modified.

Relocating some Davis Park homes to a Brookhaven Town park just south of the marina -- an alternative recently pitched -- might not be feasible, officials say.

"There is a reverter clause: Should we not keep it as open space, it would revert back to the original family or the heirs," said Matthew Miner, Brookhaven's waste management commissioner. The Davis brothers of Patchogue donated the tract in 1945, according to the Davis Park Association.

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Suffolk cannot begin appraisals until contracts are approved by the Army Corps and New York State, and the state and Suffolk -- probably in August. But determining buyout prices could prove thorny.

Sales of Fire Island's oceanfront homes slid after Sandy; the prospect of FIMP clipped them again. Yet the market on the island and the South Shore should strengthen once the new dune is in place.

The beachfront home just south of David Schindel's Ocean Bay Park house is on the demolition list. "I don't think anybody really wants to go," said Schindel, 42.

Some people likely will take the buyout if "the number is right," he said. But the mortgage broker, along with other residents, anticipates there might be some holdouts. "I would imagine -- as my best guess -- there would be some."

Davis Park resident Bruce Keyes and two neighbors face relocating their homes back on their lots. He questioned whether a 1993 U.S. Department of Interior certificate that protects his house from condemnation would bar the move. It wasn't immediately known how many such certificates were issued.

But Army Corps spokesman Christopher Gardner said such a certificate shouldn't bar Suffolk from using eminent domain.

Some Fire Islanders say they are being treated more harshly than oceanfront dwellers in Long Beach or the Rockaways, for example, whose homes are not being demolished.

Gardner countered it isn't cost-effective to uproot such densely populated areas. And those homes face the ocean in straight rows. In contrast, some targeted Fire Island homes jut out toward the sea.

Building dunes far enough out to shield them costs too much and the dunes would be too short-lived, he said.

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