Fourteen months and another nerve-racking, close-call hurricane later, the owners of the three houses have yet to receive aid from a buyout package from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even though hazard mitigation buyout plans for all three properties were submitted before the deadline on January 17, 10 months ago. So what is the holdup?
Some of the steps required by FEMA in the mitigation process, and specifically in a buyout plan like that being applied to the properties in Readsboro, have delayed the process.
According to Vermont State Hazard Mitigation Officer Ray Doherty, towns must complete an application with a laundry list of requirements a case must meet, including environmental and historical preservation checks. “In the case of a buyout, we ask the town to identify at least two other alternatives that were considered,” said Doherty. “One of those could be relocating the house to another location not near a floodway and that requires cost estimations.”
Cost estimations for relocation include the cost of new property with existing septic capabilities, as well as the cost of physically moving the structure. Town administrator Mark Shea has spent the last 10 months working with FEMA as well as homeowners on the buyout plans. He said that FEMA rates the priority of individual projects based upon a points system. “This is a competitive type of point system and the more criteria you’re able to fill out on the application, the more points you can get,” said Shea. “I gave four alternate plans, and that (relocation) was one of them. We tried to maximize the points to make sure they were more successful in acquiring the grants.”
Another of FEMA’s requirements was a cost benefit analysis due to the location of the property. This required the town to document at least three prior damage events, if a house is not in a flood plain, and the house is not substantially damaged.
The buyout plan currently pending approval from the state and FEMA calls for the town and FEMA to split the cost of buying out the three properties, with the town covering 25% and FEMA covering the rest. The buyout would include the assessed value of the homes before the disaster, as well as project costs from demolition and the clearing process to follow. Shea said that in this case, however, the selectboard voted not to cover the 25%. “Once the assessed worth and the entire project cost is put together, FEMA would provide 75% of those total costs and the state is instead matching the 25% through Community Development Block Grants. So at the end of the day the town should not be out on any costs associated with these projects.”
The buyout plans have been pushed back three times over the past year. The first time was when FEMA asked the town to bunch the three projects together in the beginning of the process, then asked for them to be separated into three separate plans. FEMA also required a site visit by the agency in August for budget cost analysis, and for the town to set up a hazard mitigation plan before any buyouts could be approved.
The town held a public hearing on creating the hazard mitigation plan in January. According to Shea, the plan was approved just last week by FEMA. “Over a series of months they (FEMA) kept adding to what they wanted in the plan, and really nickel-and-dimed us on the language. We had the hearing in January so we could get it done right, then they asked us to put in a word here, and a line there, instead of telling us what they wanted up front.”
For homeowners Mary and Richard Lemaire, the more-than-a-yearlong process has been exasperating. The couple had been planning to move from their home in Whitingham to their house at 40 School Street, a home that has been in Richard Lemaire’s family for three generations. Mary Lemaire feels they have been left in the dark for too long. “We have no idea what the timetable is for receiving this aid,” said Lemaire. “We asked Mark (Shea) if he knew what the time frame might be and he said no, but I feel that we are able to count our blessings and that we were able to salvage what we could from this and now all we can do is wait.”
According to Doherty, the buyout plans are pending approval at the state level. Once the state approves the plans, FEMA can then give the green light. After approval, the plans could still take up to 90 days to complete. “Once FEMA approves, there is an appraisal process, a duplication of benefits check, and other things before the closing and the handing over of funds to the homeowners,” explains Doherty. “If FEMA approves in November, the closing may take place at the end of January. It goes before a competitive state project selection committee, and the state makes selections based on the feasibility of the project. So far Readsboro is in the queue for approval but we have not got the green light yet.”
Because each house is part of a separate buyout program, each one will go through the same process. According to Shea, Vermont has close to 140 of these projects on the table. Community Development Block Grants that will cover the town’s 25% share of the buyout are also competitive grants, but according to Shea, homeowners are given priority in these cases. According to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s website, “A total of $21.6 million in CDBG funding is available to help communities, businesses, organizations, and individuals with long-term disaster recovery. The funding will be distributed through both a competitive grant application process and state direct allocations. CDBG funding has been made available to the regional planning commissions through the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission to provide this assistance directly to property owners.”
While he remains optimistic, Shea has found the process bureaucratic and exasperating. “I get hesitant to talk to the homeowners each time a date is set for approval, because it becomes a disservice. We want to please people but in the long term each and every time they’ve told this, and it doesn’t come true, it loses credibility. You know how many times people like Mary (Lemaire) have been through this, she’s a homeowner who continues to ask and she’s right there in the loop, but it gets exasperating when they give her a date and she knows it’s not going to happen.”
Doherty says FEMA is waiting for its approval to come in the near future. For homeowners like the Lemaires the “near future” seems to drift further away each time.