LELAND — Thirty-four homeowners in Leland’s Stoney Creek neighborhood have signed a petition, asking local, state, and federal officials — really, anyone who will listen — for a buyout to prevent future residents from acquiring flood-prone property.
A buyout would mean demolishing the land and turning it into open space, but it’s a complicated and unusual process.
It would also set an unusual precedent. For one thing, half of the homes that flooded aren’t located in the floodplain and while that doesn’t qualify them from a buyout, it may affect their chances. For another, such a large buyout has never happened in Leland or Brunswick County, and one of them will have to put up the buyout money before being reimbursed by the state and federal governments.
“I think last night I understood just how dinosauric and slow and complicated government is,” Randi Jo Rooks, the Stoney Creek resident who organized the buyout petition, said after a community meeting with Congressman David Rouzer.
During Hurricane Florence, 44 homes in the back end of Stoney Creek — in Leland’s town limits — flooded. Many of these homes, some not in the floodplain, flooded over eight feet, into the second story.
“I genuinely don’t want to pass the risk onto another family; I don’t care how long a realtor has to put on a disclosure,” Rooks said. “People will forget.”
Granting a buyout
Between disaster and relief, years can pass. After Hurricane Matthew hit low-lying areas of Pender County in 2016, only 11 homes were granted a buyout, two years later. No buyouts have been awarded in New Hanover or Brunswick Counties.
Months before Hurricane Florence made landfall, FEMA announced it would acquire and demolish the Pender County homes, picking up 75 percent of the nearly $1.6 million tab while the state covered the remaining 25 percent.
As Stoney Creek residents hope for a similar buyout, they don’t know what to do in the meantime. Unclear on whether applying for mitigation programs will hurt their chances of an eventual buyout, some residents are hesitant to pour money into a sunk cost.
“They don’t want to put any money into their house right now,” Rooks said. “Once they put money into their house, they’ll feel invested. And they will not push forward for the buyout.”
When a federal buyout is granted, the land is dedicated as open space and deeded over to the local government, never to be built on again.
In order for this to happen, the property owner’s request must be endorsed by local officials. That threshold has already been met, with Leland planning to fully back its residents’ request.
“It’s heartbreaking because these people lost everything and it’s frustrating because there’s no clear answer,” Niel Brooks, Leland’s assistant town manager, said. “It’s kind of like the rules of the game are still being developed.”
Every application Stoney Creek residents turn over to the town, Leland will pass along to the state’s emergency management department. The town plans to, and has already in its initial communications with the state, vouch for their residents’ request of for a buyout, Brooks said.
But there are a lot of complications in actually getting this accomplished.
First, whichever government –either Leland or Brunswick County — handles the rollout of acquisition and demolition costs will have to pay the money up front, Brooks said. A younger, mid-sized town like Leland does not have several million dollars immediately available to responsibly take on such a feat.
Next, of the 44 homes that flooded, less than half are actually located in the floodplain. Only 11 of the flooded homes had flood insurance policies, as some homeowners outside the floodplain said they were dissuaded from purchasing flood insurance when they still had the chance.
“That area where those houses are built, did it flood during Floyd?” Brooks asked. “I don’t know. It may have, it was just woods.”
According to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representative, there is no federal requirement that a home must be located in the floodplain to be granted a buyout. Still, Rooks said conversations at Leland’s Town Hall on Oct. 29 suggested otherwise, where she was lead to believe homes in the floodplain have a much higher likelihood of getting a buyout.
Also, though big numbers get announced quickly, the allocation of funds to those who need it can take years. North Carolina has still only spent one percent of its Hurricane Matthew U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) community block grants. Over $1 billion of these funds has already been dedicated for Hurricane Florence, funds that could potentially be used for a Stoney Creek buyout. At the meeting last week, Rooks said Rouzer was optimistic this rate of spending would speed up in a post-Florence climate.
Congressman Rouzer’s spokesperson, Danielle Smotkin, said a buyout could be arranged through a tailored, state request to use the funds for acquisition purposes. Smotkin said HUD’s grant program is the most flexible and would have to be approved at the federal level. (Pender County’s recent buyout was also accomplished at the federal level, but not through HUD community grant funds.)
Keith Acree, spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, said that though HUD funds are more flexible, hazard mitigation grants tend to become available first.
“It’s up to the local government to decide what’s best for their community,” Acree said. “They select properties for mitigation, elevation or buyout and submit those applications on the state and then FEMA ultimately.”
Though Acree said it’s not unusual to see a cluster of properties acquired, Acree said both FEMA and the state consider applications on an individualistic basis.
“We’re very, very, early in the process,” he said.
Consultants, study to come
Leland has never handled a buyout situation like this.
The town, recognizing its limitations, plans to hire a consultant to navigate the hazard mitigation grant process after initiating a request for proposal process, Brooks said. A flood study of the entire area has also been requested, to help inform property owners, developers and town officials in any future decision-making of the Town Creek basin.
With the North Carolina Department of Transporation considering connecting New Hanover and Brunswick Counties through a proposed bridge as part of its $1 billion Cape Fear Crossing project, Rooks said officials likely wouldn’t think twice about acquiring Stoney Creek properties through eminent domain. However, she acknowledges purchasing 34 properties to prevent future flood loss is a less likely scenario.
Rooks hopes, she admits perhaps naively, that this will inspire people in power to look at the big picture. She wants officials to step back and say, “‘Wow, the back of this neighborhood is not sustainable.'”
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