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Mayor Anthony M. Masiello met with Hickory Woods homeowners today and for the first time endorsed a city buyout and relocation of residents.

Masiello, who until now has stopped short of supporting a buyout, promised to work with property owners on a plan that would result in relocation and remediation and address their long-term health concerns.

"We're committed to making them whole," the mayor said after a 45-minute, private meeting with homeowners. "And when I say making them whole, that means both property and health issues."

Neighborhood leaders, clearly happy with Masiello's decision, described the meeting as an important first step in getting the mayor involved in discussions about a city relocation and remediation plan.

"We're happy that Mayor Masiello is committed to this," said Charles Antolina, vice president of the Hickory Woods Homeowners Association. "It's an excellent first step."

The biggest obstacle facing both sides is money, a factor Masiello referred to several times in his comments to reporters. He also made it clear his goal is to keep the burden on local taxpayers to a minimum.

The mayor has sent a letter to federal housing officials, seeking financial assistance, and indicated he will seek money from other sources, public and private sector, including two previous landowners -- LTV Steel Corp. and Donner Hanna Coke Co.

"Those are two private-sector companies we have to hold accountable," he said.

The motivation appears to stem from the plummeting property values at Hickory Woods, City Hall's promotion of the development and the fact that city officials were aware of the contamination problems as early as 1993, long before the development was finished.

City Hall has sued those companies, claiming they were responsible for the contamination at Hickory Woods.

While the details are still sketchy, both sides agreed to continue meeting over the next three weeks in an effort to reach a consensus on how to move forward.

Among the questions that need to be addressed is how the city will compensate people who want to leave Hickory Woods, as well as those who want to stay there. The two sides also need to decide on how large an area will be covered by the city's relocation and remediation plan.

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