Now that Mayor Masiello has pledged to help residents of Hickory Woods, tough decisions must be made on finances, compensation, health claims and the scope of the relocation.
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello answered the ultimate question Thursday by promising that City Hall will help the residents of Hickory Woods.
But by answering yes, the mayor opened the door to even more questions.
How will the city finance what could become a multimillion-dollar relocation and remediation plan?
How will the city compensate homeowners who want to leave Hickory Woods, as well as those who want to stay?
How large a geographical area will be included in the city's buyout offer?
And if those aren't tough enough, there's the most complicated question of all: How will City Hall deal with homeowners' concerns about long-term health problems?
The questions, all of them unanswered at this point, are the result of what even critics acknowledge is an honest and open-ended promise of help from Masiello.
"He didn't give himself much wiggle room, but I'm not surprised," said Richard Lippes, a lawyer for the homeowners. "I've known Tony a long time, and he generally tries to do the right thing. I think he's genuinely trying to address the residents' concerns."
Masiello's pledge, of course, followed revelations that City Hall, which developed and promoted Hickory Woods, knew about contamination in the neighborhood as early as 1993 and probably should have known about it sooner.
It also became clear in recent weeks that the environmental problems at Hickory Woods have resulted in plummeting property values. For most homeowners, a government buyout may be the only way to recoup their investment.
Despite that, homeowners seemed pleased and maybe even surprised by the degree to which Masiello, after weeks of indecision, finally jumped on board their cause.
Without offering details, the mayor promised to address the neighborhood's numerous concerns. Many of those same concerns are the basis for legal claims against the city.
"We're committed to making the people of Hickory Woods whole," Masiello said after a 45-minute closed-door meeting with homeowners.
When asked if that pledge also included the residents' health concerns, Masiello said yes.
"When I say making them whole, that means property and health," he said.
What that means in terms of a concrete, detailed plan remains to be seen. But again, even homeowners left their meeting with Masiello encouraged.
"I think it's unreasonable to expect detailed answers at this time," said Charles Antolina, vice president of the Hickory Woods Homeowners Association. "The mayor is at least recognizing our concerns."
The two sides plan to meet several times over the next three weeks in hopes of reaching a consensus on how to move the city's plan forward. Even then, the details are likely to be sketchy.
The city's immediate goal is to lobby for outside sources of funding, from the private and public sectors, to help finance the relocation of residents and remediation of the neighborhood.
Masiello has asked federal housing officials for help and expects to make a similar request of the state. In addition, he plans to put pressure on LTV Steel Corp. and Donner Hanna Coke Co., the two companies that sold land in Hickory Woods to the city, to help with the bailout.
The city already is suing both companies, claiming they were responsible for the contamination at Hickory Woods. The mayor gained a quick ally Thursday when Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, sent a letter to federal Housing Secretary Mel Martinez asking for help in financing the city's effort.
City officials believe the federal government should ante up some funds because it was federal money that was used as cash subsidies for the new-home buyers at Hickory Woods.
The two sides also have to decide two politically sensitive issues: how to compensate homeowners who want to leave, as well as those who want to stay, and how large a geographical area should be included in the city plan.
Residents on the outskirts of Hickory Woods have lived with many of the same problems, most notably a sharp drop in property values, but have been less vocal about seeking a city bailout.
What could take even longer is a plan for addressing the homeowners' health-related claims, an issue far more complex than those related to property damage.
"I expect the health issues will be separate and apart from the property issues," Lippes said. "I'd be surprised if that was addressed at the same time."
Lippes said the city, at this point, has made no overtures toward requiring an end to the homeowners' legal claims.
More than 30 homeowners have filed such claims against the city, saying they've had damage to their health and property. The claims seek damages as high as $10 million each.