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Fire Islanders facing buyouts lament loss of prized summer homes

The community of Ocean Beach on Fire Island

The community of Ocean Beach on Fire Island was hit by superstorm Sandy. Credit: Daniel Goodrich, 2012

Anthony Lorenzo feels the pressure of an emotional loss that keeps creeping closer to reality. His family's prized oceanfront home on Fire Island is targeted for a federal buyout -- and demolition.

The striking A-frame house in Ocean Bay Park, built in 1975, has been in the family for more than two decades.

"The beach side is all glass, so there are wonderful views," said Lorenzo, 43, a Manhattan investment manager.

Soon, it could be gone. It's one of 41 homes clustered in Ocean Bay Park and Davis Park that the Army Corps of Engineers says block the path of a planned 15-foot-high dune designed to protect against future hurricanes and nor'easters. The agency wants six more homes to be moved back on their lots.

Newsday recently spoke to a dozen of the affected property owners. Almost all agreed the project is necessary, even vital. Some are dreading the wrecking ball and hold out hope of somehow altering the plan, while others are resigned to negotiating a fair price.

One Davis Park homeowner who asked not to be identified summed up her feelings this way: "I feel unfairly threatened."


The targeted property owners share an intense emotional connection to their Fire Island homes, which range from rustic summer cottages to modern, multistory "all-season" stunners worth millions.

Lorenzo said his father, an insurance broker who died in February, bought his dream house facing the Atlantic in 1992, moving up after many years of refurbishing, renting and selling more modest homes in the middle of the barrier island.

Lorenzo remembers being drafted as "labor" while still a child, "scraping tile" at the age of 8. "I never spent a summer here until I was in college," he said.

Superstorm Sandy damaged decks and wrecked an outdoor shower, but most of the elevated house was spared. Now Lorenzo is working with a lawyer "to see if we can work out a plan to stay."

He says it would make more sense -- and cost less -- to move the house to an empty lot instead of wrecking it.

"We're not trying to stop the project. I want it to go forward, but in a rational way," he said.


Federal storm defenses for Fire Island and the mainland, first proposed in the 1960s, remained theoretical until Congress answered Sandy's devastation with $51 billion of regional recovery aid.

With approvals proceeding in fits and starts, the Army Corps reclassified Fire Island's dune restoration as an emergency. It hopes to start the project in the less populated east and west ends of the island this fall, nearly a year late.

George Marks, 86, a former Huntington lawyer who now lives in Boca Raton, Florida, is among the many owners of Fire Island homes infuriated by the project's lengthy delays.

"Of course we're unhappy about it, because we don't see them doing anything," he said.

Marks stands to lose his Ocean Bay Park house where his family has summered for decades. "It's a place where I know a lot of people and had a lot of friends. . . . A lot of very nice people from all walks of life," he said.

Sandy largely spared the Marks' modern, gray-shingled home, perched atop pilings about 20 feet above the beach. But now he and his wife could be forced to sell.

"People don't like to be dispossessed, for any reason, from their roots," he said. "I can tell you, it's unwelcome."

How much each home will fetch remains uncertain. Marks and his peers are exasperated that Suffolk County likely will not begin appraisals until August at the earliest.

Meanwhile, the value of oceanfront homes, first depressed by the storm, is taking another hit from the threat of condemnation.

The new dunes, however, should boost the value of houses that lie just behind those slated for the wrecking ball. Lorenzo said a second-row homeowner near him has raised his asking price to $1.5 million, up from a range of about $800,000 to $900,000.


For the moment, homeowners are enduring another summer in limbo, waiting to see if the plan will be modified, and then to see if they agree with the appraisals. Marks, like many Fire Islanders, wouldn't be surprised if the buyouts are challenged in court.

"It's not unusual to litigate these matters," he said. "It's very rare that the offer is acceptable to the homeowner -- it's usually lower than we think the home is worth."

Martin Silver, 68, a furniture manufacturer from Palm Beach, Florida, faults officials for allowing Fire Island and the South Shore to enter another hurricane season without needed storm defenses in place.

"A hurricane could come tomorrow," he said.

His Ocean Bay Park home is on the buyout list. Built in the 1960s and modernized since then, the three-story house offers stunning views of both the bay and the ocean.

"I'd rather that I didn't lose it," he said. "My kids love it. I'll never find a place like that, it doesn't exist. I mean it exists, but at ridiculous prices."

With lawyers seeing little chance of stopping a condemnation, Silver adds: "I'm sad about it. I'm just a citizen occupying a house that a storm hit."

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