Town officials, FEMA, and the homeowners have entered into a voluntary buyout program of the homes, which will include the town paying for 25% of each home’s assessed value before the flood, while FEMA covers the remaining 75%. The town was able to get its share covered by a Community Development Block grant, and began the process of finding bidders for lead and asbestos abatement, as well as demolition.
Every step of the way, town administrator Mark Shea is making sure each element is approved by FEMA, as estimates as well as property appraisals have both come back higher than expected. Last week, the selectboard opened four bids for the demolition of the three houses, but only two of the companies submitting bids met the six-point criteria that included proof of insurance and references. The lowest bid was from Barkus Excavating at $78, 255. Shea would not say whether the town would be accepting the bid or not, as he intends to run the cost by FEMA, to make sure they will cover any demolition cost overages.
The houses continue to sit above the uneasy slope leading down to the Deerfield River, but according to selectboard chair Teddy Hopkins, closing on the properties may be in sight. Hopkins also said the town will not award demo or abatement bids until the properties are in the town’s possession and the numbers have finally been approved by FEMA.
From the town’s perspective the RFP bids for each project will allow the town to get their ducks in a row so when FEMA approves the bid amounts, they can close on the properties and get to work on abatement and demolition. Shea said the closing sale papers are currently in the hands of the town’s attorney, a review process that usually takes up to 30 days to complete.
The hazardous location of the houses, high above the river, is one reason why the town is making sure the numbers are approved before closing. “Because of the severity of the location of the houses, it’s different then if it was a five-foot drop,” said Hopkins. “If the town takes possession before the different elements of the project are lined up, then it falls in the river, that becomes the town’s problem.”
While Shea could not provide a number, the houses’ appraised values came in higher than were projected in the initial application. Shea and Hopkins both say they are confident this will not slow down the process, and are confident FEMA will cover its 75%.
Mary LeMaire and her husband Richard are still waiting for the day that their home is finally in the town’s hands. The LeMaires live in Whitingham, and were preparing to move into their home on School Street in 2011 when Irene brought its wrath. Mary LeMaire has attended every FEMA and selectboard meeting she could in the past two years, trying to get answers and encourage progress. “It’s been a long process,” said LeMaire. “ There’s been a lot of ups and downs but we have to keep looking forward. I feel we’re really close. I hope anyway.
“We seem to have been able to be close before and it didn’t happen. We keep our hopes up and it’s been difficult.”
An estimation put the lead and asbestos abatement at $60,595, and the town is currently weighing whether to have a private entity put out the requests for proposals, or whether to do it in-house. Shea says the town putting out the requests could save Readsboro nearly $9,000.
Once the town takes possession of the properties and the demolition is complete, the town will turn the land into green space, with possible plans for picnic tables and a commemoration of what happened.
So will the School Street houses still be standing when August 28 comes? Hopkins says he is confident the project will be done by then. “I believe it will be, maybe not all the paperwork, but for the homeowners, I think the closing will be done.”
For Mary LeMaire, the end could not come soon enough. “ We jumped through the hoops and it’s been a long time coming. I’m hoping and praying for an end to this so we can move on with our lives, and the town can move on with a park.”
LeMaire thinks the green space will make for a nice tribute to the sacrifices made through the entire buyout process.