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Word awaited on sinking-home grants

Early next month, nearly two dozen Amherst homeowners will learn whether they are in the running for a federal disaster grant to help repair their sinking and cracking homes.

Their bid for the disaster funds -- which comes more than three years after Amherst's sinking homes made headlines -- rests for now with state emergency management officials, who will weigh the Amherst request along with eight others submitted from across the state.

State officials are expected to select five of the applications early in March, when they will be sent to federal emergency management officials for possible funding under the "Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program."

If federal officials select Amherst's application, homeowners would become eligible for 3-1 matching grants to help pay for the cost of repairs, officials said. That means that for every $3 in grant funds, the homeowner would have to pay $1.

The money would come from $50 million set aside by Congress this year.

Darlene Torbenson, chairwoman of the North Amherst Residents Coalition, described the waiting period as "nerve-racking."

"We know we're up against a very daunting task," Torbenson said.

But calling Amherst's bid a "valiant effort," she said, "If we are not successful this time, we will try again."

In December 2002, The Buffalo News reported that some Amherst homeowners were paying up to $60,000 to try to stabilize their homes, which were sinking and cracking.

A few days later, nearly 100 people showed up at a Town Hall meeting and offered personal accounts that shocked officials. An Army Corps of Engineers study later concluded that as many as 1,100 homes could be damaged -- many of them built in areas with problem soils.

Torbenson, who also is co-chairwoman of a town task force on the sinking homes, said if the town is successful in obtaining a federal grant this year, officials hope to expand the program to help more homeowners in the future.

In connection with the grant program, Amherst Assessor Harry E. Williams said his office will be checking with about 200 homeowners who have received reduced assessments because of problems with sinking homes.

Williams notified residents in a letter earlier this month that in order to continue receiving the lower assessments, they must obtain by April 1:

An inspection of their homes by the town Building Department.

An estimate of their repair costs (dated within the past two years).

An inspection by Williams' office.

Williams said the inspections are necessary because, in order to take part in the federal grant, homeowners cannot have made repairs to their homes.

He also said the town needs to update its records on the homes to make sure they still qualify for reduced assessments.

e-mail: tdolan@buffnews.com

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