Homeowners in flood-prone area offered buy-outs

Chronic flooding is a way of life in South Shores. At high tide, the low-lying neighborhood tucked between Interstate 95 and St. Nicholas is waterlogged. People have complained for years about having to wade to their homes. Hurricane Irma just made matters worse.

District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer said she has been hearing complaints for years about the problem caused by coastal flooding during high tides and storms like nor’easters. Major events like hurricanes make it even worse.

Boyer said she spoke with officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as city public works and emergency management officials, to figure out what to do. Raising the roads was considered then rejected because it would force flood water into homes.

A possible solution – a buyout – arrived in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Because of the storm, funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is available to homeowners in flood zones with chronic flooding to mitigate future losses – for both the property owners and government agencies.

Owners would be paid pre-Irma market rate for their property. The city would tear down the homes and restore the land to a wetland. The program is voluntary and a property owner can withdraw at any time during the process, which can take up to two years.

Reactions to the offer ranged from curiosity to hostility at a standing-room-only meeting Nov. 9 at Preservation Hall in San Marco. Boyer had invited the owners of the 73 properties eligible for buyouts, but twice as many people showed up. Boyer had lined up representatives from FEMA, the state emergency management office and city officials to answer questions.

There were as many opinions shared as questions asked: The flooding wouldn’t be so bad if the city kept the drains cleared. The Overland Bridge project has forced more water into neighborhood.

John Pappas, City of Jacksonville public works director, said the area is so low that ditches don’t work well and pumps are ineffective when the water is coming from river. Ditches and pumps are designed to remove rain water, not river water.

Steve Woodard, emergency preparedness director, said construction might contribute to the problem, but the basic problem is that the homes were built in a flood plain.

People who lost their homes to eminent domain for the expansion of I-95 several years ago also came to the meeting and complained that they hadn’t gotten enough money for their homes.

If people refuse to sell can their property be seized?

No, Boyer said. The program is strictly voluntary. Under the program, the city isn’t allowed to use eminent domain.

And if the process takes two years to complete, what would happen to their property values? 

“For many of you, your home is your primary asset,” Boyer said. “With chronic flooding, you’re losing value. This would help you get your money out of your investment. This is an opportunity. It’s strictly voluntary. We don’t have to go there.”

So, what would happen to people who decided to stay? Would they lose city services?

“If there is one house on the block, there still will be services,” Pappas said.

One man on the audience wasn’t buying any of it. “You’ve just put a bulls-eye on my property,” one man called out. “No one is going to want to buy it now.”

The opportunity to dismantle the neighborhood had hit a nerve.

“I have the best neighbors I’ve ever had,” one woman said. “And my daughter lives right down the street.”

South Shores has history. It is officially known as Reed’s Subdivision for its developer, Harrison Reed, who was governor from 1868 to 1873. Many of the homes were built in the 1930s when the area was South Jacksonville.

The president of the South Jacksonville City Council, Alex Marjenhoff, lived in a house at Huntsford and Bee Streets. He helped turn the nearby swamp into a 1.5-acre park that now bears his name.

No Marjenhoffs have lived in the neighborhood since about 1990, said Wesley Marjenhoff, Alex’s grandson, but he turned up at the meeting because he wants to know what will happen to the park where he used to play when he visited his grandparents.

The answer: Probably nothing. When it floods, no one complains.

By Lilla Ross
Resident Community News

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