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Long Island homeowners feel effects of NY’s buyout program

The home at 858 Arctic Street in Lindenhurst

The home at 858 Arctic Street in Lindenhurst is demolished Wednesday, March 23, 2016. The home is one of 33 properties acquired by Lindenhurst Village through NY Rising which will be left as open space. Credit: Barry Sloan

When Benjamin Lopez decided to move back to the block he grew up on in Lindenhurst, South Bay Street was still recovering from the wallop of superstorm Sandy.

He knew the neighborhood was in a state of transition, but when he heard about NY Rising’s Enhanced Buyout Program and its goal to return properties where battered homes once stood to a natural state, he was enthusiastic.

“I thought it was going to be nice and open, with seagrass and cattails,” Lopez, 51, said.

The effects of NY Rising’s buyout program, which began in 2013, are starting to be felt in communities across Suffolk County. Unlike the agency’s acquisitions program - where the state buys Sandy-damaged homes then sells them at auction for the new owner to repair and elevate - the buyout program is focused on returning storm-prone properties back to nature.

Houses located within the Enhanced Buyout Zone - areas designated by NY Rising where homeowners have been offered buyouts - are sold to the state on a voluntary basis and then demolished, with the land left as open space in perpetuity. But to Lopez, who said he has heard of plans for a boardwalk where houses once stood and who sees streets where empty lots sit between occupied homes, the program is eradicating all that he loved about his Lindenhurst street.

“We had nice little cottages down here and now it’s all getting taken away,” he said.

NY Rising officials point out that the program is voluntary to those living in the enhanced buyout zones. The zones, said Rachel Wieder, director of the buyout and acquisition programs for NY Rising, have houses that are in “the most risky areas; they have been flooded multiple times in the past and the data shows they are at risk of future flooding.”

Across the state, NY Rising has purchased 610 buyout properties for $240 million, the majority of these being in Staten Island, where entire neighborhoods were included, creating wide swaths of properties now being returned to nature. On Long Island the program has not produced the same result.

NY Rising has purchased 148 houses in Suffolk County for $52.2 million, with another 14 buyouts still in the pipeline. The program is still open to those who were invited to participate. In 2013, NY Rising officials said they were targeting 613 properties for buyouts in Suffolk. Of that number, 234 were in Lindenhurst alone.

Nassau County opted not to take part in the program because officials didn’t want to lose the housing stock or tax revenue, according to Wieder.

Nassau County officials did not respond Thursday to requests for comment.

Lindenhurst - both the village and the unincorporated area - has the most buyout properties in Suffolk, with 55, 23 of which have been demolished. Mastic Beach is next with 38 followed by 27 in the Flanders hamlet in Southampton, 15 in Islip Town, and 13 in Patchogue.

Of the 148, there have been 56 houses demolished in Suffolk. The demolition firm the state hired is now doing “pre-demolition” activities such as obtaining permits and performing asbestos sampling. The next round of demolitions will start within two months, Wieder said. They cost about $45,000 to $90,000 each, said NY Rising spokeswoman Catie Marshall.

The demolitions have caught some Lindenhurst property owners by surprise. Sue Brownworth, 40, has two buyout properties across the street from her house on South Bay Street.

“I had no idea this was happening,” she said. “One morning I woke up to two houses across the street being knocked down.” Another house next door is also slated for demolition, she said.

Although there are blocks of properties now being returned to nature in places such as Mastic Beach and Flanders in Southampton Town, in Lindenhurst the result has been a checkerboard effect, with small empty lots and boarded up houses now located between occupied homes.

“NY Rising just went into our community and decimated it,” said Robert Fantel, 50, who lives on South Bay Street where 10 homes, or nearly a third of the houses on the block, are in the buyout program. “They bought properties just so they could be knocked down.”

The flood data used to create the buyout zones was compiled by the New York Department of State after Sandy, with buyout areas defined as those with extreme to high risk for future flooding. Officials in local municipalities also gave input as to what properties the buyout areas should include. In addition, the area had to have a majority of homeowners expressing interest in taking part in the program.

Not every community has had a large percentage of volunteers, Wieder said.

“In certain communities out east such as Mastic Beach we have had a very high level of participation and are able to work with the localities to create a plan of real coastal buffer zones,” she said. “In some of these more dense residential communities where properties have higher values and some of the folks have decided to stay, we’ve been able to take some homes out of harm’s way.”

In Lindenhurst, the result has been a gap-tooth effect on certain streets. Neighbors have noted trash, trespassers and other problems with the empty lots and boarded up homes waiting to be demolished.

Hans Kuenstler, 67, who lives on East Santa Barbara Road in the Babylon Town portion of Lindenhurst, said the buyout program is “destabilizing.”

“How does it make any sense to go into a residential block like mine and sporadically buy up properties between people who want to stay there and have restored their houses?” he asked.

Town of Babylon Supervisor Rich Schaffer said no one anticipated the way the program turned out. “I think NY Rising’s best intentions were to try and create the buffers,” he said. “But some people decided to sell, some people didn’t, and now I think they’re trying to make the best of the situation that’s been created.”

Michele Insinga, 54, lives near East Santa Barbara and leads Adopt A House, a grassroots effort to help those impacted by Sandy. While the buyout program is voluntary, she said, those choosing to sell are doing so out of frustration with the cost and process of trying to rebuild and what Insinga said is the complicated and often confounding requirements of NY Rising.

“There are neighbors who clearly wanted to stay,” she said. “But it’s easier for them to sell than to repair their homes.”

Also, Insinga said, East Santa Barbara shouldn’t be in the buyout program. She said the only recent flooding most of the homes on the street had was from Sandy, with some not flooding at all. Yet houses built in the 1920s that survived multiple hurricanes are now being demolished as part of the buyout program.

“I find it very hard to believe that the people that are living there are saying with a straight face that they were not repetitively flooded,” said Lisa Bova-Hiatt, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, which oversees NY Rising. “These are areas that suffer repetitive flooding even during a heavy rainstorm and the fact that there are people participating in our buyout program shows that there are people that have had enough.”

One of those individuals was Jason Fisher, 39, who lived on East Santa Barbara and sold his house to the buyout program. Fisher, who according to NY Rising records received more than $552,000, called the experience “awesome.”

He said that he made the decision to sell because he didn’t want to elevate his house, which received about $90,000 in flood damage from Sandy. He said the house, which he had for seven years, hadn’t flooded previously. He now lives at a higher elevation in Copiague Harbor.

Schaffer confirmed that while interest in the program was high on East Santa Barbara, the street is not prone to flooding.

Many residents question why some homes were deemed buyout homes while others - sometimes on the same street - were picked to be in the acquisition program.

An example is Artic Street in Lindenhurst, which runs alongside of Shore Road Park. On the street are six buyouts, all but one on the same side of the street with the park. On the opposite side of the street that backs up to a canal, there are three acquisitions.

According to Marshall of NY Rising, Lindenhurst wanted properties adjacent to the park to be included in the buyout zone. Lindenhurst Clerk-Treasurer Shawn Cullinane said the village would like to “give a little elbow room” to the park, which hugs the Great South Bay, but “it’s not going to be this massive expansion.” Lindenhurst has “very, very little park space” and is “woefully short” of athletic fields, Cullinane said.

“So when the opportunity came to expand the park for some of those uses, yes, I think the village rightfully looked into that and said yes, we would be interested in gathering some of these properties,” he said.

Cullinane said some ideas include creating a fishing pier or a walkway at the south end of the park. There are no plans for a boardwalk, he said, although this was mentioned as one of the village’s possible projects under their NY Rising Community Reconstruction plan.

In addition he said some of the properties “may lend themselves to some kind of pocket parks,” where the village “might be able to create some nice green open spaces in some of our overcrowded neighborhoods.”

Cullinane said the village will be mindful of the neighbors and “not necessarily open all this up to public recreation use.”

“We’re developing these things as we go along because this is all brand new to us,” he said. “No one thought we’d be in this position but it opened up opportunities and new decisions to be made.”

In addition to the properties acquired under the buyout program, the village paid more than $200,000 for a home at the end of South Bay Street that was a second home and therefore did not qualify for NY Rising’s programs.

Some residents questioned local taxpayer money being used for the purchase, while others saw it as a sign that the village is intent on clearing the area. With a lack of information on future plans, they worry that the state or village will use eminent domain to force them out. Lindenhurst and NY Rising officials stated that there are no plans to use eminent domain.

To address fears about the uses of empty lots near homes, NY Rising recently developed the Lot Next Door program, by which neighbors will be given the opportunity to purchase the adjoining property — which cannot be built on or developed — from the state. The properties could also be split between two neighbors. NY Rising began sending out letters last week to adjoining homeowners.

In Lindenhurst, where the village will be obtaining the titles to all the buyout properties, Cullinane said officials are exploring leasing the properties to adjoining neighbors.

Village resident Brownworth, who was out of her home for three years after Sandy, called this unfair, saying homeowners should not be asked to pay more money to protect their neighborhood.

Schaffer said the town hopes the lots will be given to adjoining neighbors because otherwise they could become a quality-of-life issue. But he doesn’t think they should have to pay.

“These people have gotten killed with Sandy, so my idea is they shouldn’t have to spend any money,” he said. “We’re talking about these small lots that they’re not going to be able to do anything with . . . why not just have them assume it?”

Some neighbors have complained about how the lots are impacting the character of their neighborhood. Suzanne Gordon, 48, who lives on Arctic across the street from a buyout property, said that between the board-ups and empty lots, the block is “just getting uglier and uglier every day. Meanwhile all the rest of us are dumping money into our houses like crazy to lift them up and make them look nice.”

Local officials said they recognize that this period of transition is difficult for residents.

“It’s a shame that some of these neighborhoods are not going to be the same anymore,” Cullinane said. “But I hope in the long run there’s going to be an improvement.”

Rules for buyout properties once deeded to a municipality or adjoining homeowner:

- The property shall be dedicated and maintained in perpetuity as open space for the conservation of natural floodplain functions.

- No new structures or improvements shall be erected on the property other than: a public facility that is open on all sides and functionally related to a designated open space or recreational use; a public restroom; or a structure that is compatible with open space and conserves the natural function of the floodplain.

SOURCE: NY Rising Declaration of Restrictive Covenants

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