WAWARSING – The first several of a string of homes on the Smith Road here were torn down last week, with more demolition scheduled for this week. There and on neighboring streets off Route 209 in Wawarsing, homes have been plagued for years with water that leaked from an underlying aqueduct, filled their basements and cracked their foundations.
Last year, New York City's Department of Environmental Protection contributed $3.7 million matched by New York State funds for a total of $7.4 million to buy the homes of affected residents. The program is being administered by Ulster County Emergency Management. The homes will be torn down and the property will never be redeveloped.
Peter Mei watched from his house on February 4 as the home next door, owned by Mike and Maria Smith, was the first to come down. An excavator chopped away at the building. It was down within a half-hour.
Mei and his wife, Aida, plan to close their contract with the city by the end of the month; then it will be their turn to move out.
"It's very sad," Mei said. "It didn't really hit me until the house next door came down. That first bite..."
Maria Smith said she and her husband Michael signed the contract for the buyout on December 12, 2012.
"We decided to take the buyout because we just could not take living under those conditions anymore," she said. "We also knew that we would never be able to sell the house. It was honestly a bittersweet decision. Although there were so many problems, this was our home where we raised our family and had many happy memories. "
A testament to the quality of the community they are leaving is that a lot of the people who have taken the buyout are staying in the area.
"We have moved to Kerhonkson, to a lovely home that is high and dry," Maria Smith said. "We stayed in the area since we have children — eleven and fifteen years old — who attend Rondout Valley schools."
Back on Smith Road, Mei sat in his updated kitchen, apologizing to a visitor for the piles of moving boxes filling the house. About eleven of the fifteen homes on his street will be demolished, Mei estimated. Those who are staying simply cannot afford to start over, he added, even though there will be nothing but bare land around them.
"It's sad; it won't really be a neighborhood anymore," Mei said wistfully. "This has always been home. It's a great place for kids, it's safe, everybody knows everyone here."
Mei has mixed feelings about leaving the street he's called home for more than forty years. He grew up at 29 Smith Road, then bought 32 Smith Road with his wife and raised four children. Photos of his now-grown children, some of them in military uniform, adorn a table in his living room. Nodding at the photos, Mei said, "We've got kids all over the world now — in Japan, on the West Coast — and they still think of this as home."
He and his wife will rent a home in Ellenville for a while, as they shopped for a new house and couldn't find one they loved yet. Of course, no one can blame them for being rather picky.
"I check basements now when I look at homes; it's the first thing I check," Mei added. "It would be nice to turn the tap on and fill a glass to drink. In one way, it's a relief... But I didn't think the development would come to an end this way."
Art Snyder, Director of Ulster County Emergency Communications/Emergency Management, said the buyout process is "very dynamic at this point. We have closed on seven thus far and the project is in various stages — some are receiving offers, some are having title searches and environmental reviews conducted, some have scheduled closings, demo is in progress on others, and some have already moved on into new homes," Snyder said.
Mei's sister and mother also have sold their homes to the buyout program. Mei said he feels he got a fair shake.
"It (the buyout) was more than I thought it would be," he said. "The average has been between $140,000 and $160,000."
Former Wawarsing Supervisor Ed Jennings is among the homeowners who had the difficult choice of moving, or staying in a neighborhood that wouldn't be much of a neighborhood anymore.
"We'd lived there fifty years," Jennings said. "It's sad to see the house come down, but it's a good move for us. We had enough water in our cellar — it was time to go."
He and his wife, Nancy, have since bought a house a couple miles outside Ellenville.
"We didn't go far," Jennings added. "We definitely have roots in the area."
Another homeowner on the street, however, is unhappy with the buyout program's offer.
"They're (the city) penalizing me for the size of my house," said Thomas Carpenter, who lives next door to Mei's sister. He and his wife bought their ranch home in 1997, then expanded it to a 2,700-square-foot two-story in 2004. Noting the average size of homes on the street as 1,600 to 1,800 square feet, Carpenter's home was deemed "over-improved." As a result, he is negotiating with the city to get a buyout that is proportionately equal to those of his neighbors.
"They (the neighbor's buyouts) are averaging $102 to $123 per square foot," Carpenter said. "But the city's not being fair — they're offering me $100 a square foot."
If he does not get what he believes is a fair price for his house, he doesn't know where his family could go.
For now, full dumpsters on pristine properties are slowly replacing what used to be vibrant family homes. The county is salvaging copper pipes, Mei said, but anything else that is a permanent fixture — such as a wall oven or built-in dishwasher — must remain or the homeowner will be charged $2,400.
"This is devastating," Mei said.
"There was no justice here," added his fellow Smith Road resident Laura Smith.