Treat owners with respect
This would seem like a good time for some diplomacy on the west bank.
The City of Cedar Rapids is planning for a flood protection system on the northwest side. Levees and green space. And, eventually, that’s likely going to mean buying out the last privately owned properties within a zone designated by the city. It takes up much of the now nearly empty neighborhood between the Cedar River and Fifth Street NW.
There are 15 parcels by the city’s count. Some are vacant lots. A few have only garages. But a few have occupied homes.
“It’s disheartening. It’s so disheartening,” said Dean Stull, who lives in a beautifully restored home on a corner lot along Fourth Street NW. Maps of the green space that would swallow his property are strewn on his dining table.“ To think this will be gone in three years. I’m getting goose bumps. It’s hard to take.”
A block or so away is Donna Sanders’ place on Third Street NW, with big trees and two garages and a stand of shoulder-tall tomato plants.
“It’s everything I ever wanted. There’s a lot of memories here. I feel safe here. I feel content here,” Sanders said.
So no matter how this plays out, for some, it’s going to be painful.
And yet, the City Council seemed determined Tuesday to add to that pain.
The council passed a 90-day moratorium on further development in what’s now called the “Northwest Flood Mitigation Overlay District Study Area.” A mouthful that means nobody living there can make big improvements to their property, the sort that would raise the price the city might have to pay in a buyout later.
Fair enough. But before they passed it, council members complained about the $60,000 the city apparently is spending annually to provide clean water to the area. Turns out the city needs to do special chlorine flushing in the neighborhood because of low usage.
Council member Kris Gulick said, perhaps, that cost should be charged to the handful of remaining residents. “I think it’s something we should look at,” he said.
And that’s not all, said Council member Pat Shey. These people get snow removal and garbage pickup, the “whole enchilada,’ as he put it. And to those who might complain about losing their homes, Council member Justin Shields scoffed. Everybody knew this was coming. “This is nothing new,” he said.
So the bad cops weighed in. Then the good cops met with our editorial board Thursday.
“The absolute goal is to offer a reasonable and fair price,” said Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director.
“Our goal is to be as fair as possible with everybody,” said City Manager Jeff Pomeranz, who declined to comment on the council’s tougher stance.
Swell. But what gives with the council’s bulldozer diplomacy?
Sure, maybe you or I wouldn’t have stayed after the flood. But buyouts were voluntary, not mandatory. The city allowed them to stay. And can a City Council meeting inside a restored building on the river’s edge pass easy judgment on that decision?
Stull said he stayed because he’s raised two families in his house since 1986. “I’ve diligently maintained this property for 30 years,” he said.
Why did Sanders stay? “Because it’s home,” she said.
Sanders grew up in her house and raised her own family there. She said she rejected a $63,000 buyout offer and lived in a FEMA trailer before restoring her home. Among neighbors who took buyouts, she said, a number of them are living in mobile homes and apartments. “They’re not happy. Not happy at all.”
Neither Stull nor Sanders received any notice about the development moratorium from city officials. No one called or stopped by to explain. They found out about it when media types started showing up in the neighborhood. The city has pledged to meet one-on-one with homeowners in the coming weeks.
I know we’re talking about a very small group of people. But that doesn’t mean the city should be small or petty when it deals with them. I also know that some of these remaining folks have been tough, strident critics of the city and its leaders. But if that’s what is really behind some council members’ desire to drop the hammer and start assessing them for thousands of dollars in water costs, we should all be troubled.
City leaders who say we’ve known this was coming from the beginning, since the flood, seem to suggest that the road to west side flood protection was a clear, straight line. It wasn’t. Not by a long shot. The Army Corps of Engineers declined to recommend funding for a west side plan. Two local-option sales tax votes to pay for it were defeated. Hopes looked dim for years until last December, when a state panel voted to secure state funding for the both-banks system.
And that’s the ultimate goal — protecting the city from devastating flooding. A key part of reaching that goal is forging reasonable agreements with these property owners. That’s going to require good-faith negotiation, sensitivity and compassion. Consider what the city will be asking these folks to give up. So, for God’s sake, ask nicely. The city’s goal should be to avoid costly court fights and the use of eminent domain.
So let’s drop all this talk about special assessments and enchiladas. Let’s stop acting like these folks made some huge mistake by holding on to the most important possession they have. Let’s stop looking for payback from battles now long over.
l Staff Columnist Todd Dorman appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Comments: (319) 398-8452; firstname.lastname@example.org.