Forbid Land Acquisitions in Villages

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To The Editor:
It seems an appropriate time to weigh in on the highly charg­ed topic of so-called DEP flood buyouts. I do so knowing this issue could literally determine the future existence (or not) of several communities, including and especially the Village of Fleischmanns, where I am currently serving as mayor. My gut reaction upon first hearing a year ago that the DEP was taking the unprecedented step of attempting to buy up improved properties inside of villages and hamlets was that it would quickly turn into a complete PR disaster.
The city should know that this would be the case given the history in the watershed and what I have heard from my residents confirms my gut. It is also important to make the distinction between any DEP fund­ed “Buyout” program and the program currently being developed at the Catskill Watershed Corporation (CWC) to fund and facilitate “Relocation” of businesses, critical facilities, and homes to locations that are not flood prone WITHIN their same communities in order to keep the community whole. I thank CWC board President Michael Triolo for pointing this distinction out last week in his letter and I think confusion was created because Supervisor Miller may have intended to write Coalition of Watershed Towns (CWT) instead of CWC in her letter in the previous week when she spoke to our lack of representation. The CWC has, in fact, been helpful in being the only source relaying information about the talks going on between the DEP and CWT to local leaders in Middletown, in addition to the CWC’s own efforts to forge a true relocation program for us.
A few points I would like to make to clarify where we stand on buyouts from my perspective:
First, it should be noted for those who are not aware, according to the 1997 Watershed Memorandum of Agreement, NYC DEP is explicitly prohibited from purchasing land inside of villages and hamlets the way it can throughout the rest of the town for obvious reasons. Since the goal of the city’s land acquisition program is to prevent development of vacant land or parcels where the buildings have been ripped down, and the future viability of our village depends on our ability to develop and redevelop, we naturally stand at cross purposes with the city. This is why villages such as Fleischmanns were wisely given the ability to exempt ourselves from DEP land acquisition, which we have, firmly, every five years when it comes up for vote since the MOA. This is a good thing.
Second, we lost many structures inside the village because of the Irene flooding, and several more key properties are slated to be demolished and permanently prevented from being redeveloped via the FEMA flood buyout program. In the end, Fleischmanns may lose about 10 percent of our tax base to the flood, and that is utterly devastating to a village that was already financially challenged. We are surviving nonetheless, because that is what we do. Make no mistake, though, that at this point every single building and building plot we have left is critical for our future and the further erosion of our tax base is not an option.
Also, I must say that any generous government program ideally designed to help people who actually need it often is taken advantage of by people whose intentions are less than pure. Some in Fleischmanns might say that seeing the owners of mostly derelict unmaintained properties that were neglected for years even before the flood and who were not in good standing, walking away with the outdated assessed values of such properties in their pockets from FEMA as evidence that at least here such programs indeed tend to be exploited for personal gain. You know who you are.

Inviting trouble
I believe that offering a similar “voluntary” buyout with DEP money would entice the same ilk who exploit other programs, and they would come out of the woodwork just looking to cash in because they could, and the DEP would oblige, leaving behind a further decimated village. A restricted buy-out program could set off a free-for-all pitting neighbor against neighbor. As mayor, I will not be put in a position, nor do I believe anyone in local government should be put in the position, of having to pick winners and losers in a buyout blitz. This is not good.
I believe the best thing I can do is to stand committed to not letting this happen to the village. Because I care deeply about the future of Fleischmanns, its residents, and the entire area, I support and have been working to help bring about the following solutions:
Flood mitigation projects that lower flood levels and lessen the impact of future flooding on all properties. Let’s work to get the floodwaters out of the houses and reinforce them in place and not skip past this step to where we simply get rid of the houses. There are new construction techniques already in practice, which are proving successful at surviving floods.
Construction of a Woody Biomass Fueled Community Wide Heating System. This would enable everyone in the floodplain in Fleischmanns to get rid of the oil tanks and boilers from their basements that flooded and floated away and polluted the reservoir and cost a fortune to replace. Margaretville and Ark­ville and towns all over the county could then follow suit on this as well.

Figure it out
Let’s start the long and complicated but worthwhile process of actually figuring out how we are going to relocate buildings and people to safer locations inside of our municipalities so that we are less vulnerable to flooding, but grow our tax base at the same time to make up for what is being lost. This will involve major infrastructure projects, and cost, but it can be done. The partnership between the CWC and Fleischmanns that got a sewer main extension done in record time last year is a great example to build on.
It is important that we send a consistent and clear message and that is what I am trying to do. We in Middletown are all in this together and I believe are basically on the same page. The money that the DEP is setting aside for buyouts should go towards solutions such as those I outlined above that accomplish flood damage mitigation goals AND at the same time strength­en our communities.
Fleischmanns has been a true partner of the DEP since the flood and we want to continue working that way when it is mutually beneficial. However, the DEP buying and demolishing properties inside of the villages would literally, without exaggeration, eventually collapse them. This is why it was forbidden in 1997, and why it needs to be totally forbidden now. For these reasons it makes no sense for me to support any such buyout program.

Todd Pascarella, Mayor, Fleischmanns