After the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, more than 160 Southampton Town homeowners in areas at high risk for flooding were offered a buyout by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery through its New York Rising flood recovery program. In the coming weeks, 10 of those now-cleared properties in Flanders are expected to be turned over to the owners of adjacent lots, with restrictions preventing their development in the future.
The state offered to buy Sandy-ravaged houses for a little bit more than what their market value had been before the storm struck—a deal that several homeowners have taken advantage of in the last five years. The state then demolished the houses in an effort to preserve the land as open space, which would reduce the impact of future flooding.
In 2016, 16 properties near Reeves Bay were turned over to the town as a result of this program. But this year, 10 additional properties will be distributed to adjoining property owners by the Flanders, Riverside, Northampton Civic Association instead of the town, which declined the land.
“We were hesitant this time,” Town Attorney Jim Burke said in an interview. “A lot of these parcels are in between houses, and they can be a maintenance nightmare, quite frankly. What would we do with a bunch of these small lots? The best situation would be to go to an adjoining landowner with the restriction that the lots cannot be independently built on.”
The state agreed, and sought information from organizations in the area, including the Bay View Pines Civic and Taxpayer’s Association and FRNCA, to link properties with homeowners.
FRNCA was awarded the deal in September, but when it came time to transfer the deeds, there were unforeseen delays.
Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery spokesperson Freeman Klopott said a closing date will be decided on once the appropriate steps are taken to ensure the land will be properly preserved.
Land that is transferred from the state must include covenants and restrictions recorded with the deed to ensure the property is maintained as open space in perpetuity. The preservation of open space typically includes “maintaining greenspace, wetlands restoration, flood mitigation and/or water quality projects, pocket parks, bike paths, and other recreational amenities.”
Bay View Pines Civic Association members—many of whom live near these properties—found that the proposed covenants did not go far enough to achieve the program’s goal of increasing flood protection and improving drainage.
“The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery has been engaged in dialogue with everyone who reached out about the end use of these properties, including the Bay View Pines Civic Association, and is working to incorporate that feedback into the final covenants that will dictate the requirements for the transferred property,” Mr. Klopott said in an interview. “The final covenants will go above and beyond those required by federal law to ensure that these properties continue to fit with the character of the community for the long-term.”
The minimum requirements for the covenants are dictated by federal law and programs, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the covenants can be made more stringent than what the law requires.
For instance, under federal law the covenants can allow for public restrooms on the properties, but Bay View Pines Civic Association President Chrissy Prete said she doesn’t think that’s appropriate.
“We want to make sure that the covenants and restrictions on these properties [ensure the properties] stay in their natural state, go back to their natural state, or are used for stormwater mitigation,” Ms. Prete said in an interview. “If the covenants and restrictions that we want in there are not in the transfer from New York to FRNCA, FRNCA can turn around and let the homeowners build driveways, basketball courts, camping tents and have an RV there for guests all summer.”
“A bathroom, a parking lot—when you are thinking in those terms you are dealing with a much larger property that’s being used for a park or a walking trail,” Mr. Burke said. “It’s against town zoning code to just put up a bathroom on a piece of property. It’s not going to happen.”
Nevertheless, after a month of negotiations, the latest draft of the proposed covenants does place further restrictions on the land. Homeowners who have agreed to maintain the parcels can use the land only for wetlands management, nature reserves, cultivation, grazing and buffer zones. The only structures that are allowed on the properties are for flood control, and homeowners cannot use the additional acreage to add more density to their properties.
The two civic associations have been fighting over representation in the area for some time. Ms. Prete contends that her association “is being taken over by FRNCA,” because of deals like this that don’t include representation from her group. She also claims that the state did not promote a fair bidding process, calling the deal “a land grab.”
FRNCA President Ron Fisher dismissed those claims, and declined to comment on the pending transaction with the state.
Mr. Klopott said FRNCA was the only nonprofit that met program requirements.
In an email to association members, Mr. Fisher said aside from months of paperwork, applications and documents, the state made FRNCA put up a $50,000 cash bond to show its ability to carry out the 10 transactions. FRNCA was also required to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
According to a letter dated September 7 to Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery Assistant General Counsel Brooks Kaufman, Mr. Fisher said all of the new owners have agreed to reimburse attorney fees and tax liabilities, and pledged to make a $1,000 donation to FRNCA.
“We have been working extensively with the community, our membership and executive board, local elected officials, environmental groups and the neighbors of these parcels to ensure the community’s desires are met, and that these properties are preserved and maintained as open space in perpetuity,” Mr. Fisher said.
“This New York State Rising Program is loaded with loopholes, and left unchecked who knows what can happen,” Ms. Prete said. “It’s so crooked. The town should have taken over these properties. They should have put a fence up and let nature do its job.”
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