A dry summer lulls us into not worrying about floods, but five inches of rain overnight brings back the concern as creek levels rise. People in Shandaken whose homes were devastated by Hurricane Irene in 2011 have not forgotten, especially those homeowners who are still waiting for the promised buyout of their properties by FEMA.
“We’ve been doing this for four years now,” said Pat Leimgruber, whose home in Mount Tremper sits close to the Esopus Creek. “In June 2014 there was a meeting, and we were told the property would be appraised, and we’d have our money by the end of the summer. The appraisal was last September, and we still haven’t seen the money.”
Of the properties designated for the buyout program, three have been approved for purchase so far. The Town of Shandaken signed off on the three transactions on September 7 of this year, and one homeowner has dropped out of the program. The Leimgrubers are among the 13 applicants still waiting for payment.
“We’re still paying a mortgage and two bank loans,” said Pat. “This was the fourth time we were flooded out. We were homeless for the longest time, shifting between friends and family. We have a handicapped daughter, so finally we had to find the cheapest place we could, a two-bedroom basement apartment in Kingston, with borrowed furniture. We’re getting screwed over.”
Appeals to Congressman Chris Gibson and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand were ignored, she said, and the Leimgrubers finally engaged an attorney, who has made no headway. “We were ready to picket when they opened up that interpretive center next door,” said Pat, referring to the Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center that opened in Mount Tremper this June. “The millions they spent on that building, and we can’t get the money for our place.”
Shandaken supervisor Rob Stanley confirmed that the Leimgrubers’ property is on the buyout list. “They are in the same position as the three we just did, so I assume we’ll be getting a letter shortly okaying the sale. When the DEP [New York City Department of Environmental Protection] gets a survey crew out, then they make a proposal to the town. The town can do nothing to move this along. I know it’s difficult, and the Leimgrubers have had hard time of it.”
The issue is complicated by Shandaken’s location within the New York City watershed, requiring input from the city and contracts with the DEP. The town declined ownership of the purchased properties, which would have taken the land off the town tax rolls forever. Instead, the city will own the properties, albeit at a lower tax rate, and there has been discussion about making creekside land available for recreation use, such as handicapped-accessible fishing sites. Once the buyouts are completed, all buildings on the land will be demolished.
When asked why the process is going so slowly, Stanley said that in some cases there were issues with the surveys, with owners of contiguous properties, and with legal matters. Working out language for contracts between DEP and watershed towns has been time-consuming. Delays also resulted from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when FEMA was inundated with new buyout requests.
Ulster County is handling the transactions for a large group of the properties, said Bob Sudlow, Deputy County Executive for Operations and Public Safety. At this point, he’s waiting for signoffs on various contracts, beginning with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which has had the contracts for over two weeks. Once signed, the paperwork will go to FEMA, which will send them back to DHS on the way to the state comptroller’s office. Then the contracts will be returned to the county, and the legislature will have to approve a resolution to accept the money.
Sudlow declined to estimate an end date for the procedure. “It’s taking far longer than we expected. We’re trying to use our contact folks from previous FEMA projects to fast-track this one, and the county executive will reach out to federal officials to make sure it’s fast-tracked there. We’ve been through this far too many times, and it touches people in a painful way.”
Joseph Leggio, the supervisor of Catskill in Greene County, reported that four or five flooded properties in his town were successfully processed for buyout last fall and early this summer. “It went smoothly,” said Leggio, “and there were no issues. But now they’re removed from the tax rolls.” Catskill is not in the city watershed, so the agreements were simpler, and the town was forced to take possession of the properties.
Stanley hopes the remaining Shandaken buyouts will be accomplished soon. “One house in particular is real close to the Oliverea Road,” he said. “It’s quite the eyesore. People are just waiting for it to be torn down.”