When a property or neighborhood experience repeated flooding, costs for the property owner, the community and state can escalate rapidly. Some areas are flood-prone enough that it would cost more money to remediate the flooding or support the flood recovery expenses over time than to purchase the property (or parts of the property) outright. Taking into account environmental and other benefits, buyouts can make even more sense for the forward-thinking community.
FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Program, authorized by the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, provides funding to communities for projects and planning (including purchase) that reduces or eliminates the long-term risk of flood damage to structures insured under the National Flood Insurance Program. The rules are somewhat complicated but portions of Winnetka would potentially meet the general criteria: Properties insured by National Flood Insurance with multiple incidents of damage exceeding $5,000 and total damage exceeding $20,000.
Other federal agencies, like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and local entities like the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District also have funds set aside for similar kinds of purchases. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, for instance, which serves the city of Milwaukee plus about 30 suburbs, plans to get rid of all habitable buildings in the 100-year floodplain. While that standard might be a challenge for Winnetka, much of which was built in marshland, it’s worth a look at why Milwaukee is looking towards this goal.
The houses in buyout programs are typically demolished and the land turned over to open space which can safely absorb flooding in perpetuity. Sometimes this land is converted into preserved wetlands managed as parks or other nature preserves. In addition to flood reduction, such green areas typically recharge the aquifer and improve water quality. Planting native trees and wildflowers can make the area even more attractive for humans and animals.
Glenview recently purchased 18 properties near the West Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River, demolished the homes on them, and turned the area into green space. FEMA awarded them a $3 million grant, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District contributed nearly $6 million. Glenview paid the costs associated with appraising and closing on the properties, demolition, and clean-up.
Des Plaines has purchased 21 properties beginning in 2014 with FEMA contributing $7.8 million, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources $1.9 million. A dozen more Des Plaines buyouts are underway in a second phase funded with $3 million from FEMA and $1 million from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The Des Plaines city council is expected to consider an agreement on a previously announced third round of 47 buyouts, funded with $11.5 million from FEMA and $3.8 million from the water district. A fourth phase may use money remaining from a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District grant already received as the local match to additional federal funds to buy another 50 homes.
There are other specialized buy-out programs. For instance, North Carolina’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund has spent $19 million since 1999 to reduce the amount of industrialized swine farms (and their waste products) in the state’s floodplains.
In Winnetka, a number of low-lying properties have remained vacant and on the market for several years because they have flooded so frequently in the past decade. Connecting these to create a “green corridor” conservation area from the worst-flooded properties adjacent to the Skokie Ditch and across south Winnetka could be a win/win/win benefiting long-time Winnetka homeowners struggling to sell, neighbors who flood, and the environment.