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Council hits brakes on flood buyout

Monday, April 27, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last week, City Council voted unanimously to delay a proposed flood buyout in Northwest Austin in order to give members time to learn more about the program.

Council is currently considering funding up to $328,000 for the purchase and closing costs of 11701 Charing Cross Road as well as the relocation of the current homeowners, Dolores M. Firth and Rodney Firth. The money would come out of the Watershed Protection Department’s capital budget. The department has identified the property for purchase in its Capital Improvement Program Plan due to recurring, localized flooding.

Though the city has accounted for the funds, Council members expressed concern that the buyout was occurring outside of a larger, more comprehensive discussion about the city’s flood buyout programs. That discussion, prompted by the recent Onion Creek buyouts, will take place in about a month. Council Member Sheri Gallo asked that Council consider the Charing Cross buyout in that context and not as a separate action in advance of the presentation.

Though Gallo voted to approve the lower Onion Creek buyout earlier this year, she has consistently pushed for a larger policy discussion about the city’s buyout program.

“There’s so many complicated issues that are attached to it,” said Gallo. “We’ve been asked by the citizens of Austin to be very careful about spending money because Austin is becoming so unaffordable. When I look at this situation, and I look at the fact that what city staff has recommended the buyout be is 43 percent higher than the Travis County appraisal on the house, and there is also a large amount for relocation, it just seems like these are so many policy areas that we as a Council need to address before we start implementing those in different areas.”

Real Estate Services Department Director Lauraine Rizer told Council members that city staff had hoped to have the broader policy by now, but it had taken them longer than they had projected. In light of that delay, explained Rizer, they thought it best to consider this particular buyout, given the circumstances.

“In our experience, and we’ve done over 1,000 relocations, when you start dealing with somebody who is over 75 years old, there are issues in the stress of relocating them and whether it is a successful relocation,” said Rizer. “That is why we are bringing this one forward, and how we saw that it might be different.”

She explained that the Firths have owned the house since the 1970s, and the first time the house flooded was seven years ago. Since then, however, the house has flooded five times, and the family is eager to move forward with plans to purchase another home.

“(Dolores M. Firth) is an elderly woman and is having some struggles. She fell and broke a rib, and (there are) some other issues. That is why we are bringing it forward now,” said Rizer. She said that the city had been discussing the buyout with the Firths for the past 18 to 24 months. Rizer said the city had yet to negotiate a contract for the buyout; they just felt that Council should consider it now.

Gallo said the first time the home flooded was, in fact, in 1981, which was about a decade after its construction. She said Council should also explore the possibility that, considering the time of the first flood, it could hold the builder liable.

Council Member Delia Garza pointed out that residents near Williamson Creek are waiting for similar buyouts, and those impacted by the Onion Creek Flood had to wait over a year for their buyouts. Given that disparity, Garza advocated for further policy vetting in a Council committee to establish a less-piecemeal approach.

“I certainly feel for this family,” said Garza. “My concerns are I don’t know why this is getting this attention. … There’s so many people in this exact same situation. To me, it feels like an equity issue.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen suggested the city explore how to help the Firth family through the Health and Human Services Department while Council works out the larger policy issues in committee.

River Murray in flood at Mannum in 1956” by State Library of South AustraliaFlickr: River Murray flood Mannum 1956. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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