Westport upset as state shuts out homeowners for post-Sandy help
Published 5:36 pm, Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Still struggling to get back on their feet more than a year after Superstorm Sandy, which displaced many shoreline residents of Connecticut, none of those displaced residents will receive funds to renovate or elevate their homes under the latest round of emergency aid.
The state sent out rejection letters Monday to 94 applicants from Greenwich to East Haven, who requested a total of $18 million to elevate their homes through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
The amount of funds available to the state for hazard mitigation is $16.6 million, however.
The state says the money would be better spent hardening infrastructure such as seawalls, bridges, levees and wastewater treatment plants, a decision that has baffled the leaders of a number of shoreline towns and owners of the most vulnerable homes.
A seawall project to protect Seaside Park in Bridgeport is in contention for funds, as well as planned improvements to the Beaver Brook wastewater treatment plant in Milford and a levee upgrade for Fairfield.
"I sometimes think, `Why am I even trying?' " said Charlotte Schmid, a homeowner and grant applicant whose house in Milford was condemned after the October 2012 storm. Milford had the most applicants with 28.
All Schmid says she has to show for her efforts is a file cabinet full of paperwork for a home that is uninhabitable. Her mortgage payments haven't stopped. Neither have her tax and insurance bills.
"I've been sitting here waiting patiently and complying, and I haven't seen anything yet," said Schmid, 48, who is renting a small apartment in West Haven.
The state Department of Emergency Services & Public Protection defended its funding criteria, saying there are at least two other avenues for residents to move their homes out of harm's way with public assistance, including a Shoreline Resiliency Fund announced by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on the first anniversary of Sandy.
The decision to prioritize infrastructure improvements over individual home projects came down from a 10-member committee, with each major state agency having a representative on the panel, as well as the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.
"The committee felt that the hardening of infrastructure would provide the greatest benefit for the most number of people with the limited funds available," said Scott DeVico, a spokesman for the state's public safety agency.
The competition for hazard mitigation funds was characterized by the state as fierce, with $45.1 million in proposed infrastructure work representing the bulk of $81.6 million in total requests.
"All projects are looked at equally and on their merit," DeVico said.
Five of the applicants requested $8.6 million in funding so municipalities could buy condemned properties from their owners, while another 17 applicants requested $9.8 million for generators.
Of the projects still in the running for funds, final decisions have not been made by the committee, which assigned a top ranking to infrastructure projects, followed by land acquisition and then elevating homes.
"For many homeowners this is the final option for getting their home rebuilt," said Michael Tetreau, the first selectman of Fairfield. "We're going to explore every option because that just seems like bureaucracy at its worst."
Fairfield had the third-most applications, with 25.
"They've made their priorities without any input or feedback from the first selectmen down here," said Tetreau, who like the governor, is a Democrat.
In Fairfield, a project to expand an existing flood control levee system is still in the running for the same grant program. The project is still in its infancy, without a design or specific cost estimate, Tetreau said.
"There's no way that should be prioritized ahead of people raising their homes," Tetreau said. Fairfield is a member of CCM, the New Haven-based municipal lobbying coalition with a representative on the committee. So are the other municipalities affected by the decision.
In many cases, local officials say they expended considerable time and resources because they had to submit the applications on behalf of the homeowners.
"It was definitely eye-opening that no municipality had a single applicant granted," said Daniel Warzoha, Greenwich's emergency management director. "That's very disappointing. I think it sends some pretty poor messaging from the state to the people who pay taxes in this state."
Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei, a Republican, said there was a disconnect between the stated goals of the program and the decision.
"Then why promote this as a program to help residential homeowners if they weren't even going to seriously consider it?" Tesei said. "I think it just diminishes people's trust in the state government."
Officials in Greenwich, which submitted 27 applications, sent a letter Monday to the state, asking it to reconsider.
Applications denied on their merits cannot be resubmitted, however.
The state reported 10 applications from homeowners in Westport, though the town said the number is 24 because of consolidation.
"Everyone is very upset," said Andrew Kingsbury, Westport's fire chief.
No one mentioned that applications from individual homeowners would take a back seat to major infrastructure projects, Kingsbury said.
"I'm certain that we wouldn't have spent the effort and time to submit these applications ahead of time if we knew that," he said.
In Westport, a project to repair a bridge in the Saugatuck Shores neighborhood near the Norwalk border is also in contention for funds.
"We certainly didn't want to do that in lieu of our residents," Kingsbury said. "We wanted the funding to go to the folks that are affected by these disasters."
In late 2013, Malloy's administration secured $2 million in seed money for the Shoreline Resiliency Fund, a low-interest loan program that some in state government say could grow to $25 million. An estimate was not available for the governor's office.
"It will be part of the governor's legislative agenda in the upcoming session," said Andrew Doba, a spokesman for Malloy.
Staff writer John Burgeson contributed to this report.