We shouldn’t be afraid to pop the hood on the city’s “preferred” flood protection plan.
It’s been almost five years since the City Council at that time approved the plan to put levees, flood walls and removable flood walls on both sides of the Cedar River. That council was under enormous pressure from flooded homeowners to draw lines, lines that would tell them who could get a buyout and who could consider rebuilding. They craved a measure of certainty in a time of great unknowns.
Engineers were enlisted. There were public open houses. There were three options. One carved wide expanses of green space through the center of the city, wiping out whole neighborhoods. Another put walls on the riverbank. A third mixed walls and levees with some green breathing space. In the end, hybrid option No. 3 was “preferred.” The council approved it in November 2008.
City leaders didn’t know how it would all turn out. They didn’t know that the federal government would come through on buyouts. They didn’t know that the Army Corps of Engineers would recommend funding for flood protection only on the east bank, leaving the west-side plan in limbo. They didn’t know how many houses and businesses would go, or how many would stay. They couldn’t see how post-flood redevelopment would pan out.
WHY NOT REVIEW?
Now, we know all of those things. And more than 200 people have petitioned the City Council to revisit the west-side “preferred” plan. It seems, to me, entirely appropriate and reasonable to reconsider lines drawn five years ago in the dark now that time has turned the lights on.
“It’s just a different time now. It’s time we took another look,” said Council member Ann Poe, who, along with Council member Don Karr, is pushing for the preferred plan to be re-evaluated. “We’re going to listen and see what ideas come forward.”
We now know how redevelopment is taking shape, how much potential green space we’ve got and how many residents stayed put. It would seem like a good idea to bring those factors to bear on the protection plan. Changes might be in order.
NO PET PROJECTS
It also feels like a good idea to reintroduce the public to what the flood protection plan actually is, because so much of the debate about it in recent years has centered on what it really isn’t. The real plan includes levees, flood walls, removable flood walls, pumps and storm sewer improvements, but lacks the “pet projects” imagined by its critics.
Mayor Ron Corbett has reservations about all this revisiting.
“Can it be reviewed? Yes, it can be reviewed,” Corbett said. “But I want to know what are the expectations of the citizens for that review process?”
Corbett makes some valid points.
He said he understands that the flood-protection debate stirs some strong emotions on the west side, but he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to let those emotions, alone, steer any changes. Corbett also is concerned about calls to jam such a review into a tight October timeline so it can be done ahead of the city election. The mayor is also worried how a renewed public debate might affect the city’s effort to get state mitigation dollars.
“I’m happy to do this. And I’d like to do it with as minimal emotion as we can, with some technical support to help us,” Corbett said.
It seems clear, to me, that if we’re going to have a community conversation on this, everybody has to agree to give something.
COMMUNITY’S BEST INTERESTS
The city needs to be open-minded, flexible and unafraid of new ideas — and criticism. The process should be designed to allow for maximum public input, even if that means the city takes some lumps.
But west-side residents need to remember that flood protection must serve the best interests of the broader community. No changes should be made to the flood protection plan that benefit a few while diminishing its ability to protect many. Technical expertise will be needed to make sure that doesn’t happen. And that may mean a longer process.
I don’t think a swift October drive-by does the job. As for the election, candidates for office are free to take stands on the future of flood protection. Regardless of when a city review begins, the public debate has already started.
State funding is critical, but there’s still plenty of time to revisit the plan before the city makes its application for funding.
Maybe not much changes, or maybe a review results in major alterations. After five years, and all the uncertainties this city has dealt with and overcome, we really shouldn’t be afraid to find out.