State sticks with Smith Island buyout

State officials have decided to forge ahead with a controversial offer to buy out about 10 homeowners on Smith Island as part of a plan for helping Somerset County recover from superstorm Sandy.

The Department of Housing and Community Development earmarked $1 million for buyouts on the island, out of $8.6 million in federal aid the county is to receive to help businesses and residents repair and rebuild after the fall storm.

Many islanders had objected to the buyout, saying they felt it unfairly targeted Smith residents for relocation when other coastal areas on the mainland suffered more damage and are arguably more vulnerable to future storms. Some also said they worried about the impact on the island's diminished population, now under 300.

The county's commissioners voted not to do a buyout, citing the vocal island opposition, but state officials say they also received comments favoring the plan. "The State feels that individuals and families should be provided the opportunity to move out of the floodplain and closer to mainland services," the housing department said in its plan it intends to submit to the federal government.

Thirty-five island homes suffered damage, out of 889 countywide, according to the department. It says the buyout would serve a national objective set by the federal government of "elimination of slum and blight on a spot basis."

The state proposes to spend only $4.9 million of the federal aid this year, and the amount set aside for the buyout is roughly half what had originally been proposed, leaving enough to purchase and demolish about 10 homes, according to the plan. Any properties bought would be cleared the plan says.

No relocation benefits are offered, but anyone who sells out and buys another home on the mainland in Somerset would get $10,000 or 10 percent of what they pay for the new place, whichever is greater.

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