Members of the Town of Olive planning board are trying to put the brakes on the town board’s disposition of flood-prone properties in Boiceville, saying the town needs to formulate a cohesive vision for the hamlet to prevent the dismantling of its commercial district. Town supervisor Sylvia Rozzelle has rejected the planning board’s complaints as coming too late in flood mitigation planning that has been going on for several years, following the flooding of Boiceville from Hurricane Irene in 2011. Furthermore, a visioning project for the hamlet is in process, led by engineering firm Milone and MacBroom, with recommendations now awaited.
Rumors spread by one planning board member appear to be exaggerated and unjustified. On the other hand, co-chairs David Sorbellini and Edwin Maldonado clarified their opinion that the town should not be taking piecemeal measures such as moving the Boiceville firehouse or proceeding with property buyouts by New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). In a phone call, Rozzelle disputed the rumors and explained the reasons behind actions taken by the town board.
RUMOR: New York City is condemning properties in Boiceville, without regard for the negative effect on the hamlet’s commercial district.
CLARIFICATION: There are 17 flood-ravaged properties in Boiceville that are eligible for buyout by the DEP. Upon purchase, the agency will condemn any structures on the parcels, tear them down, and turn ownership of the land over to the town. So far, six homeowners have indicated an interest in taking advantage of the buyout program. As flood insurance rates are scheduled to increase yearly to compensate for the rising frequency of flood events, staying within the floodplain could lead to exorbitant flood insurance premiums unless steps are taken to modify the properties for flood resistance. Funds for relocating and rebuilding, or for floodproofing, are potentially available from DEP, FEMA, and other agencies. Maverick Family Health has to consider whether to relocate or try to floodproof its building. Nancy Occhi, the owner of the Boiceville Market, said she does not want to take a buyout, has no idea where she could possibly move her business within the hamlet, and is waiting for more information on her limited options. The planning board is currently looking at a proposal by the fire department to rebuild its Company #5 station outside the floodplain, at a higher elevation nearby.
RUMOR: The town will have to pay flood insurance forever on the bought-out parcels.
CLARIFICATION: Rozzelle pointed out, and the planning board co-chairs agreed, that if there are no structures on the properties, no flood insurance is required. The town has the option of designating the land for recreational use so it will continue to be of benefit to residents.
RUMOR: The DEP got a new law passed in the state that may destroy Boiceville’s commercial area due to flood-related measures. The town signed off on the law, when they could have forced the DEP to build a berm or levee to protect Boiceville.
CLARIFICATION: In 2012, the Federal government imposed new regulations regarding insurance for flood-prone properties with the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act. There is no new law. The town board has voted to sign flood buyout agreements with DEP for properties that the owners wish to sell. Like an earlier agreement with FEMA, which bought and demolished the Trail Motel, the DEP contract specifies that no buildings may be constructed on the land after it is turned over to the town.
The issue of building a protective berm is complex, but there is no chance that the DEP could be forced to construct one. A berm is one of the options considered in the town’s recent Local Flood Analysis (LFA), a four-year process, which, Sorbellini acknowledged, “Sylvia and her team did a great job with.” The completion of the LFA qualifies Olive property owners to receive funding for flood mitigation measures from the Catskill Watershed Corporation (CWC) and other agencies, based on a series of recommendations resulting from the LFA assessment. In terms of cost-effectiveness, a berm was rated low on the scale of options. “The preliminary BCR [Benefit-Cost Ratio] score of 0.65 does not meet the typical minimal threshold of 1.0 for submission of a grant for FEMA hazard mitigation sources,” the LFA report states. “Neither the CWC…nor the Ashokan Stream Management Program will fund the construction of a flood protection system.”
Estimates for the cost of building a berm vary widely, from the LFA’s figure of $3.9 million to Rozzelle’s assertion that it could go up to $15 million. The project would require re-piping of the existing wastewater treatment plant, a process that Rozzelle said might cost as much as $1.5 million, which would have to be paid for by the 126 members of the wastewater district, a heavy burden for the small population that would benefit.
Rozzelle was told that of the 103 berms and levees in New York State, only one is accredited by FEMA, a requirement for obtaining lower flood insurance rates. FEMA did not answer queries to confirm this statistic, due to the partial government shut-down. “If we can’t get the berm accredited,” said Rozzelle, “we will spend millions and still pay high flood insurance.” She pointed out that the LFA for Mount Tremper, located in the Town of Shandaken, recommends removal of that hamlet’s levee, which failed to protect local properties. The LFA found modification of the levee would not be cost-effective.
When it was pointed out to Sorbellini that these considerations seemed to discourage the building of a berm, he responded, “The hurdles to make a berm happen are definitely high hurdles. There’s ambiguity around cost, height, valves. I’m not an expert. We’re making the commentary, was it really vetted out? The numbers are all over place. I’m not saying it’s the only answer for sure.”
RUMOR: There has been no public hearing to notify residents about the regulatory changes regarding flood issues.
CLARIFICATION: A public hearing is not required when an agreement with the DEP is at issue, as opposed to a new law. The town has debated flood-related measures at town board meetings, at LFA presentations, and at meetings of the Olive Flood Advisory Committee. All of these proceedings generate minutes that are posted on the town website.
The planning board, however, was apparently unaware of the town board’s intentions until recently. When the buyout issue came to their attention, several planning board members wrote a letter to the town board dated September 5, 2018, stating, “While buyouts may provide an attractive option for some owners, the properties acquired through this program will never again be available for future business or residential use, even if future efforts are successful at mitigating the 100-year flood risk.”
The letter cited forthcoming projects that might reduce the hamlet’s vulnerability to flooding, including the planned reconstruction of the Route 28A bridge near Route 28; the expansion of the Ashokan Rail Trail into Boiceville; the potential extension of the Boiceville wastewater treatment facility; the potential addition of a wastewater treatment facility in the adjoining hamlet of Shokan. “Given the above,” states the letter, “we feel that further analysis is needed before irreversible actions are taken.”
Recommendations included halting the negotiation of buyout contracts and initiating meetings with New York City, New York State, and Ulster County officials regarding possible coordinated efforts to protect Boiceville from flooding, maybe by constructing a berm.
When the letter was presented to the town board at its September 2018 meeting, said Sorbellini, “Every recommendation we made in the letter was shot down within ten minutes. The town board was saying, ‘It’s too late, where were you?’ And yes, I should have been paying more attention. It’s my bad. Ed Kahill, who’s on the planning board, had been helping the town as part of the local flood assessment, and the rest of us didn’t know what was going on. When he made us aware at a planning board meeting, we jumped right on it and were summarily dismissed.”
Co-chair Maldonado remarked, “The planning board is charged with looking at everything that happens in the town with regard to land parcels. That’s our charge, to make sure everything complies with town code, looking into the future. We felt like this project was being done with several strategic parcels, and we were not made part of that process.”
Sorbellini added, “What if we moved the firehouse onto a two-acre lot that displaces the only lot feasible for a supermarket or a doctor’s office? It’s happening piecemeal, without an overall vision. The town doesn’t even have a comprehensive plan.” He’s also concerned about the damage to the town’s tax base if residents and businesses decide to move out of the township.
He feels it’s premature to make any changes before the completion of the visioning document by Milone and MacBroom. Rozzelle said she applied for a $20,000 grant for the visioning project as soon as the LFA was finished. The resultant report will include responses to surveys of town residents; possible layouts for buildings and parking areas on properties that are out of the flood zone; and recommendations for changes to zoning, wastewater district boundaries, and land management tools.
Rozzelle felt there was no need to wait to help the owners of flooded properties in Boiceville, who have been facing severe financial and emotional stress. If they don’t sell, she said, “They’re going to have ridiculous costs in flood insurance. One couple already lost their home and business to the bank. The city is their savior with the buyout program. So far only one contract has been signed. Those 17 parcels pay collectively less than $20,000 per year in town taxes.”
The firehouse, she explained, has long been designated for possible relocation. It was Olive’s top consideration in the 2014 iteration of the Ulster County Multi-jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan. As part of that document, six different sites within Boiceville were identified as possible properties for building a new firehouse, which is not under control of the town but run by an independent fire district.