In Shickshinny, Penn., Flood-Buyout Program to Continue Through 2014

By Jennifer Learn-Andes, The (Wilkes-Barre) Times Leader | January 2, 2014
Flood

Donald Hargraves is flooded with nostalgia when he drives past the Shickshinny, Penn., home he owned for more than five decades but doesn’t regret recently selling the property in a flood-buyout program.

“I loved my home. If I was younger I’d still be there, but it’s over. There’s no sense in staying,” said Hargraves, who turns 87 next month.

He didn’t think twice about remodeling the McClintock Street double-block in 1972, when the Susquehanna River floodwater rose 7 feet on his first floor.

But when the water again lapped at his first floor ceiling during the record flood of September 2011, Hargraves accepted the help of volunteers to gut the remains and called it quits. He moved in with his son on higher ground in the Shickshinny area.

At least 19 Shickshinny properties have been sold to the borough as part of buyouts since September, according to deeds recorded with the county.

The properties are among roughly 100 throughout the county that were expected to be wrapped up by the end of 2013, officials say.

Municipalities must agree to own and maintain buyout properties and keep them undeveloped.

Shickshinny Mayor Beverly Moore said most of the buyout property owners have left the borough, and she misses regular interaction with familiar neighbors, including Hargraves. The properties should be demolished in the near future, she said.

“We will have empty lots taking away from the tax base and community itself, so we really need to be creative and hopefully come together in a plan for the borough to become more of a riverfront attraction,” said Moore, who moved to the borough in 1992 and has been mayor since 1997.

Moore said several property owners declined buyout offers, usually because the amount offered would not cover outstanding mortgages.

Property owners are offered appraised value in buyouts. The appraisals are based on pre-flood property values, and owners are free to accept or reject offers, officials said.

Jim Brozena, an engineer consultant who is overseeing buyout requests for eight municipalities, including Shickshinny, said the deeded purchase prices may be misleading.

The government deducts some other flood-related assistance, known as “duplication of benefits,” which means property owners may receive more than the amounts listed at closing.

For example, Hargraves received a total $55,600 for his home on 0.11-acre and two undeveloped lots totalling 0.78 acres. The three properties have a combined assessment of $82,000 for taxation purposes, but Hargraves said the purchase price did not include flood insurance reimbursement he received for his home that was not spent on repairs.

“They treated me right. I can’t complain,” Hargraves said.

Brozena said buyout offers were made for properties considered substantially damaged, and owners who refuse to participate may be forced to elevate their structures if they want to remodel and stay put.

Municipalities were required to adopt new flood zone development regulations as part of revised federal flood maps that took effect in November 2012. These new rules mandate property elevation for extensive remodeling and new construction in high-risk zones, he said.

“The only way for that not to happen is for the property owner to prove to the municipality that they were not substantially damaged,” Brozena said.

Brozena said additional buyouts will continue through 2014, including as many as 100 funded by a county community development allocation designed to cover flood damage lingering after other assistance programs have been exhausted.

The buyouts should alleviate some of the stress when the river rises again, Brozena said.

“At the end of the day, no matter what protection measure you undertake — including levees or elevating your house — there’s no guarantee that you’re still not going to get flooded,” he said. “The only way to ensure a property doesn’t get flooded anymore is if it’s not there.”

 

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