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Committee recommends more home buyouts in floodplain

Friday, December 4, 2015 by Jack Craver

Property values are rising in Austin, even in areas at high risk of flooding. It’s a challenge that the Watershed Protection Department faces as it seeks to buy properties in the Middle Williamson Creek area threatened by flooding, city staff told the Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee on Thursday.

Mapi Vigil, managing engineer for the Watershed Protection Department, said that the $18 million City Council allocated last year will not be enough to cover the 63 homes the city is trying to purchase. However, the anticipated shortfall of $6 million to $8 million is based on the assumption that all of the targeted homeowners will accept the city’s offer, a notion that Council Member Delia Garza suggested was unrealistic.

Unlike a similar buyout program in which the city partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers and has already purchased targeted homes in the Onion Creek floodplain, Garza said, many Middle Williamson Creek residents aren’t interested in leaving. That’s despite the Watershed Protection Department’s claims that many homes in the area are at risk of “deadly flooding.”

“I don’t think half of these people are going to want to be bought out,” Garza said. “Before I was elected, I went to a community meeting, and in fact the majority were mad at this.”

The city is now in the process of reaching out to owners of 38 additional properties on which Council authorized the city to make offers in June. They were identified as being at the most risk because they either experienced interior flooding during the October 2013 flood or enough flooding of the surrounding property for residents or first responders to be at risk. So far, only two owners have accepted offers from the city.

On Thursday, the Watershed Protection Department requested that the committee recommend that Council authorize buyouts for the remaining 25 properties that did not meet that criteria but are still considered at-risk. But Vigil said that the city would have enough money to purchase only seven of them, assuming every owner of the 38 properties that have already been authorized for buyouts agree to sell.

In spite of the funding concerns expressed by staff, the committee voted to recommend the authorization to Council with no additional funding. Garza reasoned that if and when the money runs out, the department can return to request additional funding from Council. But she wanted to give owners of all of the staff-identified at-risk properties a chance to sell their homes on a first-come, first-served basis. “Just because those 38 properties flooded that one time doesn’t mean that the other 25 aren’t going to flood the next time,” she said.

The recommendation passed 2-1, with Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo joining Garza in support and Council Member Don Zimmerman in dissent.

That decision came after a discussion in which Council grilled staff over funding alternatives. Kimberly Springer, deputy budget officer for the Financial Services Department, told the committee that the buyout program has been financed by certificates of obligation, a form of debt payment authorized by state statute to pay for land-use projects and related services. The department would recommend the same funding mechanism if Council approved any additional money for buyouts.

“In other words, borrow more money, create more debt,” responded Zimmerman. Zimmerman voiced puzzlement over the increasing values of homes in the Middle Williamson Creek area, suggesting they indicated that people were willing to take the risk of living in a floodplain. He said he opposed allocating any more money to the program.

“If my choice to live in Austin is in a 25-year floodplain, or else I live under a bridge, or else I move to Buda, that floodplain looks pretty good,” he said. “We can’t operate this way, where we say we’re going to buy homes in a floodplain, but the value of the homes is increasing while we’re waiting to buy them out.”

Map courtesy of the city of Austin; full presentation embedded below.

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