Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our View - 'Chicken or egg' questions and flood mitigation

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sept. 2, 2009.

Building a levee at Taft Speedway and No Name Road is one of dozens of potential flood mitigation options being considered by Iowa City officials. The city has applied for community development block grant public infrastructure money for the estimated $10 million project. There is no guarantee, of course, that the money will be approved, and even then, the Iowa City Council still would have the final say in whether the project would move forward.

Jeff Davidson, Iowa City director of planning and community development, said that raising Taft Speedway would allow the city to address two issues simultaneously:

• Provide emergency access to the rest of the Peninsula area. Davidson said about 500 people, whose homes were otherwise "high and dry," still had to be evacuated for nearly two weeks last year after water poured across Foster Road, the only access to their homes.

• Help protect Parkview Church and the 92 residences in Idyllwild. Because those residences are part of a condominium association, Davidson said Iowa City was unable to use federal money to buyout any of the properties unless the owners of all 92 properties concurred.

Unfortunately, the proposal would leave some other property owners -- owners who said "no" to the city's offer for a buyout -- on the wet side of the levee. Davidson said those owners were apprised, at the time they rejected the city's offer, that there could be some flood mitigation project that could leave them on "the wrong side of it." Yet we think those property owners still are right to worry about how the levee would worsen the effect of future floods on their property.

And city officials don't have exact details on what the effect the levee would have on those properties in the floodplain. That level of research and design won't take place unless and until the project receives enough outside funding.

The debate over this specific proposal illustrates "the chicken or the egg" question that comes up with nearly every city project. City staff members don't always have the time and resources to fully research the consequences of a project unless and until there is a good possibility the project will receive outside funding. Yet the city can't really know if the project is feasible politically and of practical benefit until city staff spends the time and money to research all the consequences.

Although city staff keeps saying, "The City Council will make the final decision," it becomes much more difficult to halt a project once outside funding has been secured. Even when the project has clear negative consequences -- as this one would for some owners whose property has been in their families for generations -- the institutional inertia usually is on the side of those working to see the project completed.

If city staff members are successful in securing enough outside funding for this project, the Iowa City Council still needs to proceed with caution and to make sure it's not protecting some property owners to the absolute detriment of other property owners.

Because these property owners rejected the city's buyout offer, we think they should not be eligible for further government assistance if and when their property floods again. But neither should the city take steps to make flooding worse for them.

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