As condemnation threat looms, owners of Saltaire home fret over dune project
By: Joan Gralla
A sturdy Saltaire house superstorm Sandy couldn’t topple is the first on Fire Island to face condemnation to make way for federal dunes, and its owners are desperately trying to save it.
Suffolk County has started wielding its eminent domain powers to acquire land needed for the storm-protection project, focusing first on Kismet and Saltaire.
For the Strauss family, that means their beach house on Pacific Walk could be facing bulldozers soon.
“It’s absolutely nothing fancy, but it’s what my wife dreamed of her entire lifetime — to be on the ocean,” said Dr. Elton Strauss of Roslyn, who married his wife, Karen, 44 years ago.
“From the time we first got married, that’s all she talked about, ‘Someday I just want a little oceanfront house,’ ” he said.
The couple bought the three-bedroom house, raised on 30-foot pilings and wrapped in gray shingles, about 12 years ago.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which plans to spend $207 million of Sandy relief funds reinforcing a third of the 32-mile-long barrier island with 15-foot-high dunes, has said about 20 homes, almost all in Ocean Bay Park, must be demolished to clear the path. The dunes would erode too quickly if built in front of those houses, the Army Corps says.
Suffolk is charged with buying the homes and obtaining easements from more than 400 property owners. The county went to court last week to start eminent domain proceedings in obtaining four of the easements, in Kismet and Saltaire.
County Executive Steve Bellone has vowed to “minimize impacts” on homeowners. A spokesman declined to comment on specific properties.
The Strauss’ home is the only one in Saltaire facing demolition. Lamented Elton Strauss: “We are 15 yards too far south.”
The family still hopes to save the home by moving it to the vacant quarter-acre lot directly behind it. The village of Saltaire owns the lot, which is tangled up in a lawsuit over whether it can be developed.
Strauss said he never wanted a mansion — just a modest summer house.
“I just wanted somewhere I could wear shorts and T-shirts, play with my children — and now with the grandchildren and dogs,” he said.
Though he is an orthopedic surgery professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, the summer home was a bit of a stretch financially.
Karen Strauss, a harpist, said: “I’m a musician and for years and years, I used to play sometimes up to six weddings in a weekend, and when people would say to me, ‘Why are you killing yourself, why are you working so hard?’ I would say, ‘Because I would like a beach house someday,’ and it became a joke in the family.”
She added: “We came and took one look, and we decided we would scrimp and save and get it.”
The couple feel welcome in Saltaire, she said. In medical emergencies, neighbors turn to her husband, who would never refuse.
“We have more tennis balls and wine from people he’s treated and never has charged,” Karen Strauss said.
Locals call their home the “Baum” house, as it once was owned by Dwight James Baum, an architect whose Depression-era buildings include New York City’s West Side YMCA. Baum also is a distant relative of “Wizard of Oz” author L. Frank Baum.
Since the dunes were proposed two summers ago, the Strausses have been waiting to learn if they can buy the adjacent lot.
“It’s been a terrible thing over our heads,” Karen Strauss said.
Now she fears Labor Day might mark the end, when the family will have to pack up all their belongings, so dune-building can start before winter.
Saltaire Mayor Robert Cox said the village has discussed selling the empty lot with the family.
However, Saltaire must wait until it knows whether a neighbor, who sued to keep the lot from being developed, again appeals after losing two rounds in the lower courts.
After the Aug. 22 appeals deadline, Saltaire plans to put the lot up for sale, Cox said.
Saltaire must act in the best interest of all residents, which means a developer could offer more than the Strausses can afford.
The couple ruled out one option: moving the house back about 10 feet. They said that would have prevented any future additions, and their ocean-view deck would have been right against the new dune, which could worsen any storm damage.
The Strausses, who would be compensated for their home at an appraised value if it’s demolished, have yet to receive a buyout offer, according to their lawyer, Sean Cronin of Mineola. Zillow, an online real estate data firm, estimates the home is worth $1.3 million.
As the pressure mounts, Elton Strauss is digging in.
“My personality is one where I’m going to fight until the last bulldozer comes,” he said. “My dog and I will be sitting on the deck, and they can come and get me.”