Editorial: Post-Sandy home buyout is a wise plan

Floodwaters run through Cutchogue late last year after Floodwaters run through Cutchogue late last year after superstorm Sandy. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing that owners with homes damaged during superstorm Sandy or those in the flood zones be offered buyouts and the land preserved as a coast. (Oct. 29, 2012) Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

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Here's the plan: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing to set aside $400 million from the Sandy relief fund to buy out New Yorkers whose homes on precarious coastal sites were wrecked by superstorm Sandy.

As many as 10,000 houses would be razed. The land would return to undeveloped coastline, and the state would pay owners pre-storm market values for their properties. The governor would provide bonuses for entire blocks that wanted to sell. Wetlands, sea grass, parkland and sand dunes would replace driveways, backyards and sidewalks. In some places -- where housing values have fallen and flood insurance rates are rising -- it's hard to imagine a better deal.

Homeowners would win. Taxpayers would win in the long run, by buying a property once rather than restoring it again and again.

In an age of potentially devastating climate change, Cuomo's plan would provide an alternative to willing families in the most vulnerable sections of Long Island, Staten Island and the Rockaways -- to name just a few key places. Beyond that, the plan would relieve taxpayers from footing the bill the next time a superstorm screams in -- forcing expensive rescue operations, dangerous fire calls at homes and businesses, and catastrophic economic losses.

"There are some parcels that Mother Nature owns," Cuomo mused in his State of the State address last month. "She may visit once every few years, but she owns the parcel and when she comes to visit, she visits."

Before anything can happen, the feds must sign off on the governor's plan. Then federal, state and local officials will need to help him sell the idea to New Yorkers in vulnerable areas.

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For his part, State Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) cites some reasonable caveats to the governor's approach. We don't want to see major portions of a community given back to nature while scattered housing remains, he says.

The Cuomo plan isn't universally popular on Long Island.

Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach) believes few of his constituents would take a buyout. "The City of Long Beach is like an extended family, he says. "People who live here never want to leave. I don't know of anybody who would take this opportunity."

That's not surprising. Beach communities and access to the water are central to what the Island is all about.

And yet for some, a buyout would make good sense. Extreme weather has become more common and rising sea levels the norm in this part of the country. Cuomo's ideas for limiting the vulnerability of New Yorkers are more generous than any likely alternatives -- such as the sledgehammer approach of eminent domain. This isn't a political notion or an ideological point. It's just a fact.

Meanwhile, residents of the Rockaways in Queens, or Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, or Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, seem slightly more flexible on the issue, according to state Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn). "Some of these people, you're going to see take the money and leave," he said.

Untold reams of detail must be worked out between Albany and Washington before this program can become a reality. And there remains the question of whether future aid should be denied to those who refuse buyouts.

Sandy has reminded us of our vulnerability and cost us more than we can possibly afford to pay. We can't sit impassively through a return engagement. We've had our warnings. We need to heed them.

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