Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our View - Learning from Idyllwild's past, present, future

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," June 13, 2009)

On Jan. 23, 1990 -- 3½ years before a so-called "100-year" flood and 18½ years before a so-called "500-year" flood -- the Iowa City Council voted 5-2 to approve the preliminary plat of a then-proposed 20.8-acre, 68-lot subdivision called Idyllwild.

At the time, then-councilors Susan Horowitz and Karen Kubby voted against the measure because of the city's potential liability after a major flood. Then councilors John McDonald, Bill Ambrisco, Randy Larson, Naomi Novick and Darrel Courtney voted to move ahead with the subdivision because the plan called for all buildings to be at least one foot out of the "100-year" floodplain -- which meets all the requirements and floodplain ordinances.

"I think we have a responsibility to look at this information," McDonald said at the time. "But I also feel we have a responsibility to give these people (the developer and the builder) some answers."

The five councilors passed the measure with the understanding that they would deny final approval if new information indicated a danger to people's lives or property. But not enough of that "new information" seems to have arrived (although many experts were on hand to warn the council that predicting a "100-year" floodplain was an inexact science at best). And, almost exactly two years later, the council unanimously voted to rezone the tract to allow development of as much as 104 condominiums. Ninety-two units have been built, and the city now is in the process of buying out the undeveloped land.

A flood of "new information," of course, came in 1993 and 2008. The base elevation for the floodplain was raised after 1993, and the experts are still collecting and studying the data from last summer's flood before deciding how to change it again.

But those requirements didn't help the residents of Idyllwild who trusted the city officials, engineers and insurers who said the odds of catastrophic flooding outside of the 100-year floodplain were so small that they needn't worry about it. In the past year, many of those flood-displaced families have moved back into the floodplain -- not because they're not worried about future floods -- but because they think they have no other financial options.

Take Charlie Eastham, for example. As both president of the Housing Fellowship board of trustees and member of the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission, he has a broad perspective on housing issues. But the retired university employee's perspective grew even broader during the time that he and his wife, Karen Fox, were displaced from their flood-damaged home at 37 Colwyn Court.

The couple didn't have flood insurance -- Eastham said they were told in 2004 that they didn't need it and couldn't get it -- and they don't qualify for any buyout program. Yet through a combination of additional loans and some state funds, they are able to move back into their home.

The Idyllwild Condominium Association Board is holding a Flood Reconstruction Celebration at 3 p.m. today to mark the progress made by Eastham and other residents. Board President Sally Cline said about half of the subdivision's units have been restored and about 30 units have been sold -- sometimes for less than a quarter of their pre-flood price. Cline hopes that 90 percent of the units will be restored by this fall, with about 20 units becoming high-end rentals.

"Compared to where it was six months ago, I'm amazed," Cline said.

We, too, celebrate what Idyllwild residents and other flood victims have accomplished in the past year. But we hope our city, state and federal leaders have learned just how foolish it would be to approve any future construction along the river.

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