By Hilary Russ
(Reuters) - Some New Jersey homeowners are expected to start getting offers from the state within the next two weeks for their properties that flooded during last year's Superstorm Sandy, according to a state spokesman.
The state is "working with the people who want their homes sold to get them through all of the red tape," said Lawrence Ragonese, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. He said that offers will be forthcoming within two weeks.
Governor Chris Christie has said he wants to use about $300 million - up from an initial $250 million - of federal funds to buy about 1,000 homes damaged by Sandy and another 300 that are prone to repeat flooding in the Passaic River Basin in northern New Jersey.
Superstorm Sandy slammed into the U.S. East Coast in October, ravaging portions of the New York and New Jersey coastline and damaging tens of thousands of homes.
After acquiring clusters of flood-prone homes at their fair market pre-storm value under a federal program, officials in New Jersey and New York plan to demolish the houses and leave the land as open space to help absorb water from future floods.
Post-disaster buyouts are not new. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has helped fund the purchase of more than 40,000 properties over the past decade, but the average transaction takes 12-to-18 months to close and large-scale purchases such those in New Jersey and New York after Sandy are rare.
In New York, the state began sending appraisals out earlier this week to some homeowners on the borough of Staten Island, according to homeowner Joseph Szczesny, whose house was inundated during Sandy even though he had raised it up off the ground.
While such buyouts can drag on for years, Szczesny said the process is speeding along.
"I think we're going faster than a speeding bullet," he said. "To me the buyout makes sense."
The Staten Island neighborhood of Oakwood Beach is on track to become the first in New York to go through the buyout process. Nearly 200 homeowners there have said they want to be bought out after decades of flooding left many feeling they had no other option.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo laid out a $400 million program to buy more than 1,000 high-risk properties off the market. So far, the state has won approval to use $171 million of disaster-related block grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the program.
A spokesman for the New York State Division of Homes & Community Renewal, which is overseeing New York buyouts, did not respond to a request for comment.
In New Jersey, the first tranche of money is coming from FEMA, which in June awarded nearly $29.5 million in grants to fund the voluntary acquisitions. The purchases are proceeding in conjunction with an existing state flood buyout program, called Blue Acres.
New Jersey's first post-Sandy buyouts will be in Sayerville, the same area where a sewage treatment plant was inundated with silt and seawater, sending raw sewage through manhole covers into the streets.
Appraisers are reviewing properties. But homeowners can get their own appraisals if they disagree with the government's findings, and they can reject offers they feel aren't adequate.
The $29.5 million is expected to cover most of the cost of the first 129 purchases. The state can use funds from the Blue Acres program to match any portion of the buyouts not covered by FEMA money, Ragonese said.
(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Tiziana Barghini and Vicki Allen)