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Lindenhurst looks to give Sandy-damaged properties to state

Hans Kuenstler, with his wife Heidi, in front

Hans Kuenstler, with his wife Heidi, in front of the empty lot he and his neighbor purchased from the state. The house that was on it was flattened during superstorm Sandy. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Lindenhurst officials, faced with unexpected costs and insufficient manpower, say they want to give back some of the more than three dozen superstorm Sandy-damaged properties the village agreed to acquire from the state two years ago.

State officials say the South Shore village is expected to take title to the 43 empty lots that were part of NY Rising’s Enhanced Buyout program, which was designed to return flood-prone properties to a natural state for parks, buffer zones or other uses, with the houses demolished and no development allowed.

Under the federally funded program, the state purchased 152 properties in Suffolk County for $54.3 million, with the most buyouts in Lindenhurst, followed by Mastic Beach.

The state paid $18.2 million for the buyouts in Lindenhurst, which had less consistent participation than Mastic, where entire blocks took part in the volunteer buyout program. As a result, Lindenhurst has been left with empty lots interspersed between homes, creating a checkerboard effect.

The Lindenhurst Village Board agreed to take possession of 31 of the properties in a November 2015 resolution, later adding 12 more. Mayor Mike Lavorata, who was then deputy mayor, voted in favor of the measure but said last week that he was given limited information on the condition of the properties and the buyout program. Shawn Cullinane, former clerk treasurer of the village who was not reappointed when Lavorata took office in March, was the main contact between the village and the state during that time.

Cullinane said there were many conversations with the board about the properties and how to possibly use them, including an expansion of Shore Road Park, which abuts more than 20 of the buyout properties. Lavorata said last week that there will be no park expansion.

“I wasn’t always privy to every conversation” about the properties, Lavorata said. “They said, ‘OK, we’re going to take these properties, this is a great thing, we’ll have some green space,’ ” the mayor said, referring to some members of the previous administration. Lavorata added that it was never mentioned that the properties “are in bad shape, in at least some of the cases.”

Village officials are concerned about maintenance and security costs regarding the lots, and residents say they’re already emptying the properties of garbage and policing them for drug use, vagrants and fires.

The village has no public safety force, and Lavorata said he does not have the manpower to maintain the lots or the budget to cover millions of dollars possibly needed for bulkhead replacement.

“The bottom line is, it looks like I’m stuck with these,” he said.

The situation is the latest in what village residents have called a prolonged and inept handling of storm recovery by state and local governments in the nearly five years since Sandy roared across Long Island, leaving Lindenhurst badly flooded.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with the many individual needs and circumstances brought about by Sandy’s destruction,” Catie Marshall, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, wrote in an email response to the criticism.

Longtime residents say they are frustrated by a lack of action and are unsure of what their community will look like with vacant lots scattered throughout. “We’re suspended in a state of disaster because no one is committing to a future for us,” said Darlene Fantel. The street she lives on — South Bay Street — has 11 of the vacant lots.

Lavorata said village trustees have just started surveying the sites. Officials will meet this week to discuss what to do with the 43 properties if an agreement with the state can’t be reached, he said, adding that he is still hoping the state will hold on to the deeds of some of the lots.

“We have informed the village that we fully expect them to adhere to their part of the agreement and take over the properties,” Marshall said, but added that the state is “working with the village administration to come to a clearer understanding of any concerns.”

Lavorata said the village is exploring leasing the properties to neighbors and that some have already expressed an interest. He said the money would be used to pay the property taxes on the lots.

Lot Next Door

Less than 2 miles from the buyout zone in Lindenhurst Village, the unincorporated area of Lindenhurst has had a different experience. There, the Town of Babylon decided not to take possession of the 17 buyout properties. The state then offered neighbors the opportunity to buy the lots whole or split them up as part of their Lot Next Door program. Ten of the 29 neighbors have taken part, buying six of the properties for $60,184, according to the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery.

One of those buyers is Hans Kuenstler, who split the $10,000 cost of the 20-by-80-foot lot next door with his neighbor, Sarah Aldridge. Annual taxes are estimated to be $400. He has put in new docking, fencing and landscaping.

“Before, it was awful, it looked like a war zone here,” Kuenstler said of his neighborhood in the early days of the buyouts. “Now the area looks so much nicer.”

— Denise M. Bonilla

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