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Travis County still working on finalizing flood buyout program

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 by Jimmy Maas

Four and a half months after the devastating Halloween floods, the county still doesn’t have a definitive buyout plan for all of the affected properties in the Bluff Springs Road area.


After an hour of public discussion, and even more in executive session, Travis County Commissioners decided Tuesday they need more information, including current photos of one of the properties in question.


Neighbors and one clergyman spoke before the court asking that county policies be revised to include non-residential properties in the buyout mix. Right now, only homes are considered for county buyout funds. The same is true of city funds, as well, according to Travis County staff.


The issue brought some emotional testimony from Bluff Springs Road constituents angered over how one commercial property, Caswell Properties, has impacted their property.


“For those of us who are out being bought out, you are putting us at risk by talking about grants and studies and everything else,” Marcia Zwilling, representing Bluff Springs property owners, told the commissioners, “And I don’t even understand how TNR could possibly not consider the property that has caused most of the damage to our neighborhood.”


That property is Caswell Services, listed on the web as a roofing company. According to pictures presented by Zwilling and neighbors speaking before the court, Caswell used its land abutting Onion Creek to store materials and used goods. Pictures from Google Earth reveal a long debris trail that starts at his land and moves down the creek.


“What was a beautiful greenbelt became a graveyard for Caswell’s junk and our horses,” charged Zwilling.


Caswell Services played a role in the court’s decision to postpone action for a week. Caswell did not respond to email or phone requests for comment.


“In my view, we’ll need an up-to-date photo of Caswell property, take a look at that and maybe give further thought to policy,” said County Judge Sam Biscoe.


Steven Manilla, Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources executive, brought some recommendations should commissioners want to make changes.


“On any commercial application, we’d want to do a potential benefit-cost analysis,” said Manilla. “FEMA has a methodology for doing that and we would use that methodology. That would help us prioritize. We want to do an environmental assessment. We don’t know what they’ve been doing on the property for decades or whatever. We don’t get in the business of being the owner of contaminated property.”


Environmental assessments would cost taxpayers $12,000 per property.


“Judge, I would prefer to keep it simple,” said Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez. “We’re talking about flooding and trying to keep people out of there, in the areas that flood, so if we approach it that way, that’s what my preference would be.”


“Sounds to me that we are willing as a county government to move down the road, trying to assist in the commercial aspect,” said Pct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, “but that has to be done in the grant process versus what we have the money to do… because the money that we are going to spend from the county is going to be on residential properties. That number is larger than, quite frankly, what we think we can deal with.”


Three weeks ago, the county considered a buyout for 60 homes and nine non-residential properties. Commissioners approved buyout packages for 30 of the homes with major damage, but put the other 30 houses on hold, along with all of the non-residential.


Pastor Mike Marcellus of the First Independent Baptist Church is looking for a buyout for the church property. He’s also urging a change to county policy on churches, taking non-profits out of the commercial, non-residential category where they are now, perhaps making them available for funding.


“We’d like to move across the street,” said Marcellus. “There’s a hill that goes straight up. It would take another biblical, Noah’s flood to basically reach the land across the street. We love our community.”

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