Newfane voters reject land purchase

NEWFANE — Voters at Special Town Meeting have rejected the Selectboard's request to purchase property that has been landlocked since Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the bridge that provides access to the parcel.

The board considered buying the land, at 14 Lynch Bridge Rd., so that the town could redistribute anticipated funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) more strategically.

But residents at the Nov. 8 meeting, saying they were motivated by a distrust of FEMA and uncertainty over unforeseen costs, described the plan as too risky.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal, which would have authorized the board to spend up to $190,000 for the property.

“I want to just be as clear as possible,” Selectboard chair John Mack said. “This is actually a very complicated situation which is presented to the Selectboard, and this is, at least in part, why we are bringing it to the town for a vote.”

During Tropical Storm Irene, Lynch Bridge - the property's only connection to public roads - washed away.

FEMA, in collaboration with the Vermont state government, has determined that it will pay $562,000 to have the bridge rebuilt.

However, if the town chooses not to rebuild the bridge, but rather to discontinue the road, the Selectboard can instead use a little over $500,000 of the funds for other projects or equipment, Mack said.

“You've got a bridge that serves one homeowner, this doesn't seem in my mind the best use of [] half a million dollars,” Mack said. “What I felt is was I can't walk away from $275,000 in good conscience.”

If the town elected not to rebuild the bridge, the property would remain landlocked, and the Selectboard would discontinue the road.

The town could take these steps without buying the property, but then the property owners, the Monroe family, would have the right to sue.

“We think as the board that we felt both ethically that it's the right thing to do, to pay the landowner and ... not have someone sue us and slow the process down,” Mack said.

Although the vote against the article was not unanimous, no voter spoke in favor of the article.

The voters spoke in favor of using the FEMA money for its original intent: to rebuild the bridge.

Some residents present at the meeting expressed a mistrust of FEMA, saying they believed that the agency might not give the town the money which they've allocated.

Some voters also expressed concern over additional costs of owning the property, included maintenance costs.

“There's just too much liability factor for the town of Newfane to buy this house and then try to tear it down and sell it,” Frank Suponski, of South Newfane, said.

Dave Berry, from Williamsville, detailed what many agreed was the most obvious problem with selling the property to recoup some of the purchasing cost: “A landlocked piece of property... who in their right mind is going to buy it? Nobody.”

A bird in the hand

“My concern is as I look at the whole picture,” Chris Druke said.

“The single biggest fear that I have is that we will go through this whole process with these funds, which are all the taxpayers, and as we move to FEMA [...] we go to alternative projects,” Druke continued. “I am so concerned that we won't get approval or we won't get the funds and that leaves us in a huge problem.”

Other voters, including Carolyn Coleman of Williamsville and Dorris Knechtel, agreed.

“It's not a bet with my money,” Coleman said. “I think the risk is way to high in the situation we're in coming out of with so much flood damage. We still haven't gotten the money in from what's been approved.”

Mack, who presented the plan in detail at the start of the meeting, did not express a personal opinion on the plan. He said he was greatly relieved that it is a town decision, and not a Selectboard decision.

“I don't want to go forward without the town feeling comfortable,” he said. “If the town experiences it as too great a risk, I can't argue that point. I can't say what FEMA is going to do.”

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