New York Buyouts following Hurricane Sandy

On February 3, the New York Times reported that Governor Cuomo had proposed to spend up to $400M to buy out properties destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, demolish and remove the homes, and allow the vulnerable land to remain undeveloped shoreline. Here are some excerpts:

The purchase program, which still requires approval from federal officials, would be among the most ambitious ever undertaken, not only in scale but also in how Mr. Cuomo would be using the money to begin reshaping coastal land use. Residents living in flood plains with homes that were significantly damaged would be offered the pre-storm value of their houses to relocate; those in even more vulnerable areas would be offered a bonus to sell; and in a small number of highly flood-prone areas, the state would double the bonus if an entire block of homeowners agreed to leave.

The land would never be built on again. Some properties could be turned into dunes, wetlands or other natural buffers that would help protect coastal communities from ferocious storms; other parcels could be combined and turned into public parkland.

…Last month, in his State of the State address, he raised the prospect of home buyouts, declaring “there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns”

“She may only visit once every few years,” Mr. Cuomo said, “but she owns the parcel and when she comes to visit, she visits.”

Well said!

Of course, FEMA has been pursuing such buyout policies for years. You can find some of the details here. Their website explains details of the process. Perhaps of special interest to readers might be the bit on the advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages and Disadvantages

Individual property owners will want to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of property acquisition. The advantages of property acquisition include:

  • Peace of mind because it reduces, if not eliminates, most of your      future risk
  • Fair compensation generally based on the pre-flood market value of      your home
  • A chance for a new start
  • A means of recovery that is more advantageous than repair grants or      loans
  • An opportunity to recoup at least partially your financial investment      in a property that has lost value

On the other hand, property acquisition has its disadvantages for you. These may include:

  • Loss of roots
  • Despite efforts to compensate you fairly, property acquisition may not      make you “whole” again

The process can be lengthy. Property acquisition is not an overnight solution. Applying for funds, waiting for approval, transferring funds, conducting appraisals and closings, etc., take time, especially if the project involves many properties.

A good list…and frankly stated. All Americans, and especially those individual homeowners and landowners contemplating such a step, should appreciate the candor, especially when it comes to the negatives. The “sense-of-place” element is both poignant and particularly powerful.

But perhaps it could be argued that the benefits, both to the affected individuals and to the larger society, are significantly understated. Action by state- and federal agencies as well as individuals could address this. The shoreline, maintained in its undeveloped state, will provide huge recreational values and even spiritual benefits to future generations. The pristine newly-public property will broaden public access to the shore and offer a meaningful experience of the ocean to many who might not otherwise know it and in the process strengthen the connection between all of humanity and the sea. Owners giving up their property rights in exchange for the buyout can and should draw immense personal satisfaction from having made such a gift. That satisfaction could be made more concrete by some form of public acknowledgment to the owners who made such a decision, in the form of markers at the site as well as other means. Similar arguments apply to the riverine habitat created by FEMA buyouts in floodplains elsewhere.

Buyouts are most likely the beginning, not the end, of the story. They will foster a chain of other social engineering and adjustments. Suppose, for example, that such shoreline habitat restoration were rather widely implemented. It would then follow that some distance back from the shore, human settlement would take on a slightly different look and feel. In particular, it’s easy to contemplate the development of tourism and recreational economies and activities that would provide access to the shoreline and drive up the value of such restoration. Some of these changes might be welcome, and others might be detested. [More likely, individual reactions would span this spectrum everywhere.]

Recall that similar purchases of privately-held lands have been contemplated in other settings. For example, over the past two decades there’s been discussion of creation (under different titles) of a notional “Great Plains National Park,” viewed in some formulations as extending from Mexico to Canada. Advantages cited have included the formulation of a buffalo commons, the development of a tourist economy, and the opportunity for significant carbon sequestration. Motivations also include the decline in the population and economy of much of this region as younger generations move off farms and ranches into cities.

There’s much to like in the Cuomo initiative, and much to be learned from it as the work unfolds.

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3 Responses to New York Buyouts following Hurricane Sandy

  1. In some of the post-Sandy reporting, I’ve seen two views on proposals such as Gov. Cuomo’s from those most affected by the storm. CBS News interviewed residents of Staten Island and the hardest hit sections of Brooklyn. A dispirited homeowner on Staten Island said his neighborhood had effectively been swept away by the storm and there was no way he would stay. He no doubt would be interested in Gov. Cuomo’s offer. A woman in Brooklyn expressed the opposite view: My family is here, I raised my kids here, my job is here, no way I’m leaving (“Fuggedaboutit!” she would undoubtedly tell the governor.) Those opposing views are probably representative of how Gov. Cuomo’s plan will be received. In the meantime, we all need to at least think about moving to higher ground.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks, George. Spot on. People ought to be free to make either choice, so long as they’re all willing and able to take on full responsibility for those decisions, versus relying on government bailouts or subsidies. Where it gets complicated is the impact of those decisions on others. For starters, those who want to stay and rebuild somehow have to shoulder the added cost of providing critical infrastructure to support the vulnerable area (the streets, electrical power, water, etc.). Some states/local governments are factoring such risks into the property tax structure for those who make such lifestyle choices, but even such measures don’t fully cover the costs, which extend to emergency services and much more when the hazard strikes again.


    I lost my house at 562 midland avenue, staten island, ny 10306 and I’m willing for buyout program.

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