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Some On Staten Island Opt For Buyout Of 'Houses That Don't Belong'

New York state is buying homes like this one in Staten Island's Fox Beach neighborhood as part of a Hurricane Sandy recovery project in the hopes that demolishing them will help nature return and provide a barrier to future storm surges. (WNYC)

Staten Island's Fox Beach neighborhood used to be a working class area about 180 homes, mostly small bungalows. Fox Beach is — or rather was — a few hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean, and after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, homeowners decided their neighborhood was dangerous in terms of natural disasters and too expensive because of the rising cost of flood insurance.

So the state has been tearing the homes down.

Bill Bye's home at No. 16 Kissam Ave. was a recent one to go.

"The insurance would be too high, the property, tax, everything would be too high," Bye says.

A back hoe nibbles away at his house, bit by bit, using its shovel first to knock the roof boards loose, pluck away the gutter and nudge the brick chimney. Within an hour the whole thing comes down.

The insurance would be too high, the property, tax, everything would be too high.
Bill Bye of Staten Island

Franca Costa, who lives next door, is staying — at least for now.

"I don't know if they are offering me enough money, where I could buy something else for us. The guy down there moved into a studio. I don't want to do that once I've owned a house," she says. Costa is one of only a few holdouts left.

'Houses Don't Belong Here'

It's not just because of Sandy. This is wetlands. It floods in heavy rains and is barely above sea level. In hot weather, wildfires break out.

"If you look at what we are in the midst of right here, you realize houses don't belong here, period" says Joe Tirone, who has convinced New York state to buy out whoever wanted to sell. "It's insane to think this is what it looked like 30 or 40 years ago and someone said, 'I can build some homes here.' "

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo embraced the buyouts. He's devoted $600 million of federal Sandy relief money to the project. That'll cover roughly 750 homes, not just here in Fox Beach, but in other sites on Staten Island and on Long Island as well. The buyouts aren't cheap, but environmentalists say they're well worth it.

"The problem is a national problem. Population in coastal counties is increasing. Taxpayer subsidies for flood insurance is increasing. More property and more lives are at risk now along the coast in terms of endangerment and future storms than perhaps ever before," says Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The idea of buyouts, or retreating from flood prone areas, took root about 20 years ago. Government agencies calculated in some cases, it would cost less money than repeatedly bailing people the same homeowners for every flood.

"Living along the coast and having an ocean view is very enticing. Unfortunately, there are some coastal areas where that is problematic," Goldstein says.

On Staten Island, where more than 40 homes have been torn down so far, the buyouts are not only removing people from dangerous areas, they are creating open space that will act as a buffer to blunt the force and absorb some of the water of the next storm surge.

"It should be actually a rather peaceful place where you could come and walk and view wildlife. I think there is real potential here," says Rebecca Sinclair of the New York governor's Office of Storm Recovery.

In Fox Beach, nature is already returning. The reeds have grown more than 10 feet tall in places. People see deer, herons and hawks regularly. The former residents have moved upland to higher ground, sometimes just a few blocks but far enough back to be out of harm's way for the next storm.

Copyright 2014 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnyc.org/.

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