CARIBOU, Maine — Since late April, severe damage from spring runoff has shut down a quarter-mile portion of the River Road in Caribou.
The damage quickly worsened throughout May, creating a rift that looks like earthquake damage next to four homes on the road. According to Aroostook EMA Director Darren Woods, initial estimates indicated repairs could cost up to $2 million.
To assist in these efforts, city and county officials applied for disaster aid via FEMA last month. In late May, Caribou city councilors voted to cover rent payments, up to $1000 a month, for River Road residents who have moved into apartments elsewhere due to safety concerns.
Roughly one month later, FEMA did not approve the funding request and River Road residents Alan and Robyn Jalbert asked if the city could provide a letter of intent indicating that they intend to purchase the homes on the unsafe portion of the road.
Alan Jalbert said he is entering into discussions with his bank and that the city’s decision to either purchase or not purchase his property could greatly change his financing options, such as if he “can still carry [the River Road] property and have to take out a mortgage on another,” he said.
His “debt earning ratio” will change if he doesn’t have the River Road property holding him back, and he asked if the city will eventually buy the property.
“I don’t care about the date,” he said, “and I don’t care about the amount.”
Mark Goughan, who served as council chairman for the June 25 meeting due to both Mayor David Martin and Deputy Mayor Nicole Cote’s absence, said that he would prefer if Martin and Cote were present before any decisions were made on the matter.
Jalbert clarified that the letter would not need to be a “legal, binding agreement,” but just a letter indicating what the city intends to do with the properties.
Goughan suggested Jalbert submit a formal request for the letter, so councilors could discuss it during the next meeting in two weeks.
“I don’t see you being any further ahead in two weeks,” Alan Jalbert said. “You will have more people to vote on it, but do you think you’ll have any new information by then?”
The City Manager said he believed local officials would have new information at that point.
Robyn Jalbert asked if council was deliberately choosing not to discuss the situation at this point.
“We don’t know what we’re going to do yet,” said Councilor Tim Guerrette.
Robyn Jalbert brought up council’s recent decision to pay rent to River Road residents for six months, and asked if the city would know for sure if they were going to purchase the properties by that deadline.
Marker said the city initially intended to pay rent for six months, and then to re-evaluate the situation.
“Even though FEMA funding is off the table, there are other types of federal funding we may be able to tap into to,” Marker said, adding the city would still need to appraise and determine the price of the homes.
Robyn Jalbert said she “can’t wait until October” for the city to let her know when, or if, they will be able to purchase her property
Councilor Joan Theriault empathized with the homeowners.
“If we have to wait three months for the assessors, then we have until the end of September,” Theriault said. “Some people on the road are probably out of oil by now. They’re not getting mail, or any services, and garbage isn’t being picked up. I can’t imagine living like this; it’s just awful.”
Marker said federal agencies have told Caribou officials not to discuss purchasing properties until they receive more information in about a week and a half, at which point they will have a better idea of what money might be available.
Diane Gove, who also resides on River Road, asked for a vote that if the city receives more information from FEMA in a week and a half, they would send a letter to the Jalberts “with the intent that you may be purchasing the property.”
“Only because they’re talking a 1.35 interest difference and 15 years difference,” Gove said. “And the letter would only be for the intent. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Gove said the River Road situation is an unplanned emergency, and that it is frustrating for the people who live in the affected area.
Goughan entertained a motion to that effect, but Councilor Phil McDonough hesitated to take action on an item city officials were told not to discuss by federal agencies.
McDonough asked Marker what the definition of intent means to federal agencies who may provide funding to Caribou, and suggested contacting the city’s attorney.
The city manager said federal agencies do not want to see the “process tainted,” or “their dollars already tainted” by a preemptive decision on Caribou’s part.
“That’s why they’ve said to hold off on discussion until we know if federal dollars are going to be here,” he said, adding that city officials will hopefully have a better answer in the “next week and a half.”
Council ultimately made no motion on the matter, and Goughan reiterated that Jalbert should write a formal letter to the city.
“Really,” he said. “I hope you do write a letter. It will get into the next council packet.”