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Homeowners express their frustration with the DEP's leaking aqueduct.   Photo by Paula Sirc
State Buyout For Wawarsing Leak Offers Little Relief

WAWARSING – Maria Smith sits in the tidy kitchen of her home on Smith Road, near-tears at the prospect of having to stay in the house she and her husband, Mike, have so meticulously and lovingly maintained.

"We just can't do it anymore," she says of her family's valiant struggle to remove the water from the underground aqueduct that continually floods the basement of their home, causing a myriad of related problems.

During the "one-two punch" of tropical storms Irene and Lee, the Smith's pumped more than 25,000 gallons of water from their basement every hour.

Last week, Ulster County officials held an informational session in Wawarsing Town Hall to encourage residents affected by water seepage to apply for the next phase of the Greater Catskills Flood Remediation Program.

Introduced by state legislators in 2008 after the Southern Tier and Catskill regions experienced unprecedented flooding in the spring of 2004, the program initially funded the state's purchase of one and two family homes damaged by the floodwaters.

In May 2011, the state legislature agreed to repurpose $3.6 million in the program's surplus funding to include buyouts for homeowners that have incurred damages from the DEP's leaking aqueduct. Ulster County is charged with administering the program.

During Thursday night's meeting, DEP Regional Manager Ira Stern announced that the DEP had agreed to match the state's funding — bringing another $3.6 million of fun#l administer the program, outlined the criteria at the meeting and said that homeowners have until Oct. 28 to complete the "comprehensive" application, have it notarized, and then returned to his office.

The program offers little solace to homeowners like the Smiths, who are deemed ineligible because their combined income exceeds, by $14,000, the state's required threshold. As defined by HUD, that threshold equals 150 percent of the Area Median Income, which, for a family of four, amounts to $109,000.

Set by the state, the criteria also requires that the home slated for buyout be the primary residence of the owner and its value not greater than $250,000. Once a house is bought, it will be demolished and the land can never be developed again. Some audience members noted that the buyout will hurt the town in the long run, as it will lose any tax revenue from those properties.

Another homeowner asked what would happen to his property value if his neighbor's properties are condemned.

Snyder acknowledged the limitations of a program that is funded to buy only 18 of the approximately 60 severely-damaged homes. However, he encouraged homeowners to file their applications even if they don't meet the criteria for the current program, noting that there may be additional funding sources.

Affected homeowner Julianne Lennon hopes the county will base their determination for buyout on the condition of the homes — the more severely damaged houses should have top priority. Lennon joined forces with neighbor Laura Zakotiria-Smith to give voice to similarly affected neighbors and residents. They both serve on a project advisory committee created to address the ongoing local problems associated with the leaking aqueduct tunnel.

Republican candidate for town supervisor, Scott Carlson, who attended the informational session, said he was appalled by the program that "missed the mark in a huge way."

"This is not the buyout that people were being promised," he said. "It's not going to fix the problem — $3.6 million divided among 50-60 homes is $60,000, but divided among 600-plus homes is only $6,000."

For now, the Smith family is forced to wait, and hope, for additional funds to be made available. "We can't stay, but who will buy the house?" Smith asked. "We can't buy another house until we sell this one."

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