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Environmental Commission moves Onion Creek buyout plan forward

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Over four years after the 2013 Halloween floods racked the Onion Creek neighborhoods, the Environmental Commission voted unanimously at its Dec. 6 meeting to approve staff’s recommendation to move forward with 128 buyouts of houses at immediate risk of flooding come the next downpour.

The Watershed Protection Department’s recommendation is a culmination of multiple years of study by the city and consultant Halff Associates. Options besides buyouts were considered: a regional detention pond, flood walls, channel modifications and combinations of these. Staff finally landed on the voluntary buyout option for the Pine Hurst and Wild Dunes neighborhoods, as supervising engineer Pam Kearfott explained at the meeting, mostly because of cost and time considerations.

“We don’t take buyouts lightly,” Kearfott said. “We’re not just offering the amount the house is worth on the free market, we’re also, when it’s needed, offering a relocation supplement that’s based on houses that are on the market in Austin, with the hope that people who want to stay in Austin are able to.”

The department has $25 million in funding (excess from previous buyout programs) to purchase 45 to 50 houses in the flood plain if City Council approves the recommendation, with the expectation that the city will buy the rest of the endangered houses as more funds become available. Council had directed staff last year to begin the process of buying out 10 homes, and so far five of those have been sold.

The estimated cost of buying out all the at-risk upper Onion Creek homes is $77.5 million. Since 1999, the city has bought over 850 Onion Creek homes in an effort to keep Austinites out of harm’s way.

Many of the Onion Creek residents in attendance approved of the plan, but not all. Onion Creek Homeowners Association Vice President Ken Jacob said that he recognized the public safety concerns of the houses in question, but he thought the scope of the problem was much bigger.

“To really deal with it we have to go beyond the city of Austin. We’ve got to go beyond Travis County,” Jacob said. “We’ve got to go up to Hays. We’ve got to go into Blanco County. And we feel it has to go down into Bastrop, because what happens here also carries on to the others. It’s a regional issue that needs to be looked at in that way.”

Regional detention was presented in the staff recommendation as the next-best option, but as Kearfott clarified, it demanded a much larger upfront cost compared to the buyout approach and therefore seemed less realistic. Kearfott said that the department has had conversations with the Bond Election Advisory Task Force, although the 2018 bond would only be able to make $9 million to $15 million available for whichever approach Council ends up choosing for Upper Onion Creek, which is one of many projects on the department’s to-do list. There is an estimated $1.94 billion in unfunded infrastructure needs.

Still, the commission ultimately sided with staff, because the buyouts represented the “safest” immediate solution. Ana Aguirre, who served on the Flood Mitigation Task Force and now serves on the Zoning and Platting Commission, read out the names of Onion Creek residents who had been killed by previous floods during the public hearing. “We’re talking about lives,” she said. “We cannot afford to have any more lives lost because of flooding.”

The Bond Election Advisory Task Force is expected to make a final recommendation in January. It is unclear when the Upper Onion Creek recommendation will go before Council.

Map courtesy of the city of Austin, full version available online here.

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