Cedar Rapids council proposes investment moratorium for Time Check

Officials say they are ready to deal

An abandoned house on the 1400 block of 5th St NW in the Time Check neighborhood in Cedar Rapids is seen on Monday, July 21, 2014. (Justin Wan/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
An abandoned house on the 1400 block of 5th St NW in the Time Check neighborhood in Cedar Rapids is seen on Monday, July 21, 2014. (Justin Wan/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

All along, Cedar Rapids city officials knew that the city’s voluntary flood-recovery buyout program would leave a small number of uninterested property owners with their properties standing in place.

And the city knew, too, that some of those would be in the way of the city’s coming new system of flood-protection levees and flood walls.

On July 22, the City Council will take a first soft step to signal to a small group of property owners remaining in the flood-devastated Time Check Neighborhood that the city’s coming flood-protection system will require the purchase of their property.

The council is slated to discuss the imposition of a 90-day moratorium on any substantial building or development activities on those properties. This comes as the council shapes a longer-term development prohibition until settling on a final alignment for the west-side piece of the flood-protection system in the next several months.

Sandi Fowler, the city’s assistant city manager, said the moratorium is intended to limit further investment in the area so the city doesn’t have to pay more when the time comes to buy property.

“We don’t want the value to continue to increase,” Fowler said.

Fowler said the time when the city may use eminent domain to force the purchase of property for the public flood protection system won’t come right away because the construction of the system — and a greenway area that is part of it in Time Check — still is some time off.

Even so, she said the city has begun talking to a few property owners in the affected part of Time Check about the purchase of their property.

“We certainly hope to negotiate for the purchase of the properties that are in this area that we feel that will eventually need to be city-owned,” she said. “And we are very interested in that.

“We would prefer people at this point who have these properties come and talk to us about selling the property to the city. And we’re ready and able to have that conversation right now.”

The area in Time Check for the proposed moratorium on building is concentrated generally between O Avenue NW and J Avenue NW and Fifth Street NW and the Cedar River.

The moratorium is being driven, in part, because so few homes and businesses are left in this area that it is costing the city an additional $60,000 a year to continually flush the water system to ensure that the water is sufficiently chlorinated to be safe.

According to city figures, there are nine occupied houses, two garages, two vacant houses and two business properties in this piece of Time Check. Water service to this area has decreased 96 percent as a result of the city’s buyout program, the city said.

In addition, the city is applying the moratorium to a slightly larger area — between Penn Avenue NW and O Avenue NW and Sixth Street NW and the river — an area that affects one home, one garage and one vacant lot that did not go into the buyout program.

City Council member Scott Olson, a commercial Realtor, is a 10 percent owner of the Hubbard Ice building at 1124 First St. NW, which is one of the properties in the moratorium area.

Olson said Monday he thought the city was moving too quickly on the moratorium and should take some time to better inform property owners.

At the same time, Olson said he and his partners have had their building, which houses 10 tenants, on the market for two years. The partners would be happy to negotiate a sale with the city, he said.

Up the street, Jason Bailey, owner of Actually Clean, said Monday he hasn’t paid much attention to the city’s flood-protection plans because the plans continue to get postponed. He said he bought the commercial building in the 1200 block of First Street NW about six years ago and isn’t in a rush to leave.

At the same time, he said he doubts the city will pay him what the building is worth or make sure he has a place to move.

Virginia Chacon, a renter at 1222 Fourth St. NW, was sitting on her front porch Monday afternoon. A breeze was up and the landscape in front of her was like a large park where homes — flood-damaged, bought-out and demolished — once stood.

“It’s beautiful,” Chacon said of the view.

Chacon said moving would not be a problem if it comes to that.

Then there are Greg Vail and Ajai Dittmar, who live in the last house on First Street NW directly across First Street NW from the city’s old levee and the Cedar River beyond it.

Vail said he expected to see the city in court before he sells his property.

“Essentially what they are talking about is another form of coercion,” Vail said, comparing the earlier buyout program to the proposed moratorium on investment. “We’re constitutionalists here. We have property rights under the Constitution of the United States of America, and we’ll stand here as long as we want.”

Vail’s property, at 14266 First St. NW, had a nice display of flowers Monday and a sense that he lived far from the city because nearly all his neighbors are gone. A Ron Paul sign was noticeable in the window.

The City Assessor’s Office values the house at $50,253.

“If they want to start talking numbers, my sale price is a million. I start with a million,” Vail said of any sale to the city.

Funds for property purchases will come from the city’s flood-protection funds, which will be a mix of state, local and federal. The federally funded, flood-recovery buyout program has all but ended.

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