From Staten Island Advance By Judy L. Randall
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — The Sandy-devastated community of Oakwood Beach will be the site of a state buyout pilot program that will give homeowners who want to flee 100 percent of their property’s pre-Sandy value — and an additional 5 percent if they relocate elsewhere on Staten Island.While details of the 100-plus-5 percent plan are still being fleshed out, sign-up for the program will formally commence shortly at a meeting now being organized by Oakwood Beach residents, who have banded together to seek government buyouts.
Three Oakwood Beach residents were among the 23 people killed on Staten Island, which accounted for more than half the 43 deaths in New York City attributed to the storm. Currently, 141 Oakwood Beach homeowners are said to be interested in being bought out. The date, time and location of the buy-out meeting is pending.
The buyout program will later extend to other areas of the Island and elsewhere.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the announcement Monday during an address at the College of Staten Island, where he also previewed his 2013 agenda, one of a number of such appearances he is making around the state to build support for his programs.
“The community has come together in a unified way,” Cuomo said afterward, when asked why Oakwood Beach was chosen as the place to start.
Asked about the so-called “jack-o-lantern effect,” where some homeowners might look to stay, even as their neighbors flee, creating a crude landscape, Cuomo said, “There is no perfect situation. We think this is an option.”
Said Cuomo during his presentation: “Let’s also recognize that there are some places that Mother Nature owns. She may only come to visit every two years or three years or four years. But when she comes to visit, she reclaims the site. “I want to be there for people and communities who want to say, ‘I’m going to give this parcel back to Mother Nature’…Oakwood Beach on Staten Island is just one of those communities.”
He said the state could “repurpose for recreation” the property it purchases.
He said the $30 billion New York received in Sandy monies from the federal government would be used in part for the buyout program.
Several Oakwood Beach residents were invited to the event by the Cuomo administration, and later said they were signing up afterward, on the spot, with two members of the New York State Homes and Community Renewal agency who were present.
Islander Joe Tirone Jr., who has been leading the Oakwood Beach buyout brigade, told the Advance he hopes the payouts come by year’s end.
Barbara Mercado, a 36-year resident of Oakwood Beach, hailed the buyout move, and said she intended to take advantage of the additional 5 percent option, saying “I was born here. I intend to stay here.”
Marie Ecker, a 40-year resident, said she wants to be bought out but remain on Staten Island through her retirement years, saying the 5 percent sweetener “would make a big difference.”
“We’re not leaving Staten Island,” added another longtime resident, Patti Snyder, who is interested in the 100-plus-5 percent package.
During his remarks, Cuomo said Sandy was “not an isolated incident,” adding, “Climate change is real … It is inarguable,” adding that New York needs to “rebuild smarter” going forward.
The buyout move was hailed by a number of Island lawmakers present.
“It really is very encouraging,” said Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Mid-Island). “It shows how important Staten Island is to the state of New York.”
“It’s great to see that Gov. Cuomo gets it,” said Councilman James Oddo (R-Mid-Island). “A buyout program is not a surrender of the waterfront; it is a rational understanding that we, on Staten Island, need to redefine parts of our shoreline, and that includes ceding some land back to Mother Nature.”
State Sen. Diane Savino (D-North Shore/Brooklyn) called it “wonderful news … for distressed homeowners,” adding, “They deserve much of the credit for making this happen.”
Borough President James Molinaro, who told the Advance he helped craft the program with Team Cuomo, said he will be funneling the names of Islanders from other beach communities who are also seeking buyouts, explaining, “Our priority has to be those people who have no homes.”
Elsewhere during his remarks, which included a recap of his State of the State “NY Rising” address given in Albany last month, Cuomo ticked off a number of past accomplishments, including passing two on-time budgets without raising taxes.
He also highlighted ongoing efforts, including: raising the minimum wage to $8.75 an hour; instituting a “tech transfer” from the academic community to commercial concerns to keep jobs in the Empire State; readying the state’s workforce to fill 210,00 jobs through a refocus on community college and job-training programs; expanding pre-K and higher education resources and increasing the time students spend in the classroom; and restoring New York as the nation’s “progressive icon,” building on passage of same-sex marriage to gender-equality and pay-equity legislation.
Meanwhile, around 50 protesters representing Staten Islanders with developmental disabilities gathered at the CSI campus gates, seeking to draw attention to what they said will be 6 percent across-the-board budget cuts to not-for-profits, like the G.R.A.C.E. Foundation, On Your Mark and Crossroads Unlimited.
“What is so ironic is that he spoke on the grounds of Willowbrook, which we fought so hard to close,” G.R.A.C.E. CEO Donna Long told the Advance. “He is bringing us right back to 40 years ago.”
Asked about the protesters and possible cuts, Cuomo cited his goal of closing a $1 billion deficit without raising taxes, telling reporters: “The state has to tighten its belt … Part of that is downsizing and finding efficiencies.”
On a political note, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis was the lone state lawmaker not present. She told the Advance she had not received an “invitation.” That could not be immediately confirmed with the governor’s people. Other Island elected officials said they were invited via phone calls and e-mails from the governor’s office last Thursday and Friday.