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Council set to make flood buyout decision today

Thursday, June 4, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Today’s City Council agenda includes a decision on whether to appropriate $17,986,000 to purchase 63 flood-prone properties in the Williamson Creek watershed. Those properties are in the 25-year floodplain and are considered at high risk of flooding. The previous Council authorized the funds from the Capital Improvement Projects budget.

The city has already purchased a number of homes that were flooded during the 2013 Halloween floods along Onion Creek. In that instance, the city got funds from the federal government to assist with the buyouts. However, the city is footing the entire bill for the Williamson Creek buyouts, according to Lauraine Rizer, director of the city’s Office of Real Estate Services.

Documents provided by the Watershed Protection Department show that all but two of the 63 houses proposed for buyout will flood to a depth ranging from just over one inch to more than four feet during a 25-year flood. Two of the homes are not expected to flood during a 25-year inundation. But the owners of each of the same 63 houses could expect anywhere from 2.3 feet of water to 7.1 feet of water during a 100-year flood, according to the data.

Joe Pantalion, deputy director of the Watershed Protection Department, is an engineer with considerable experience in flood control and mitigation. He explained that certain properties are amenable to engineering solutions such as levees. In other situations it would not be cost-effective to try to build a flood control solution, and it is better to buy out the property. The department has chosen the latter solution for this area, although several neighborhoods in northeast Austin have benefited from engineering solutions.

The houses proposed for buyout are in District 2 and District 3.

Rizer explained the differences between the Onion Creek buyouts and the proposed Williamson Creek buyouts during Tuesday’s Council work session. She noted that it was hard to find housing for the buyout property owners along Onion Creek because their homes were generally worth only around $100,000, so the city needed to supplement that amount considerably more than it will for the Williamson Creek buyouts. In that area, the houses are in the $200,000 and somewhat higher range, she said, so “it’s easier to find houses.”

The city’s terminology regarding the cost of property seems non-intuitive, and Rizer ended up explaining that the term “replacement housing payment” refers to the difference between how much the person’s house is worth and how much the city will have to pay on the open market to purchase a house of similar type and amenities.

According to the charts provided by Rizer and the Watershed Protection Department, the average cost for purchasing one of 102 houses on Lower Onion Creek was $155,900. That included a “relocation” cost of about $39,000. However, three properties that were approved by Council for buyout in 2014 in the Williamson Creek watershed cost the city an average of $303,000 with a replacement housing payment of $31,000 to $32,000. The average purchase price on those homes was about $265,000.

Although Council Member Sheri Gallo did not attend Tuesday’s work session, she had a lot of questions about the program, including the total number of homes in the 25-year floodplain, the number of homes in the 100-year floodplain, the number of homes at risk in each of those and the approximate cumulative appraised value.

Staff responded that there are approximately 1,550 structures estimated to be in the 25-year floodplain with a cumulative value, as determined by the Travis Central Appraisal District, of approximately $1.38 billion. However, staff was not able to separate out the residential, commercial and multifamily buildings. They estimated that 850 of those structures would be considered at risk for flooding. The total estimated value of those buildings is $783 million.

Staff found that there are an estimated 5,120 structures, including both residential and commercial buildings, in the 100-year floodplain. Of those, 2,370 are at risk of flooding in a 100-year flood. The total value of the residential and commercial buildings determined to be at risk of flooding from a 100-year flood was estimated at $2.15 billion. The total value of residential and commercial structures in the 100-year floodplain according to TCAD is estimated to be $6.16 billion, staff reported.

Although they do not have to answer these questions today, Council members will have to consider whether they want to have a citywide voluntary buyout program and whether to cap the benefits for such a program. They will also need to decide how to prioritize the properties that they might buy.

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