Flood recovery manager Graham Watt answers questions about the buyouts of properties selected for flood mitigation infrastructure in November at Grand Forks City Hall. (Jensen Edwards/Grand Forks Gazette)

City of Grand Forks apologizes for portraying residents as victims in wake of 2018 floods

The apology also says that buyouts part of infrastructure plan, not flood recovery

The City of Grand Forks apologized last week to residents whose properties make up a key component of the city’s future flood mitigation plans, saying that it wants to set the public record straight about why it plans to buy up swathes of properties along the Kettle and Granby river paths.

“It’s really important to separate flood recovery from the mitigation and resilience phase,” said Graham Watt, who is the flood recovery and resilience manager with the city. “We just really need to clear that up and have the simple message that this is not about recovery – this is about mitigation.”

The apology comes after affected residents have repeatedly brought their concerns forward that they were being publicly portrayed as victims asking for hand-outs as a means to recover after the May 2018 flood destroyed or damaged many of their properties. Rather than being treated as “flood victims,” residents whose lands are targeted have asked city officials to be transparent about why the buyout is necessary. In a press release, Watt made the city’s position clear.

“Affected property owners are taxpayers and not flood victims looking for handouts,” he said. “Rather, [the buyouts are part of] a flood mitigation program to make the community as a whole more flood-resilient.”

RELATED: Buyout residents ask for expert representation in land negotiations

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As part of a $55-million grant package announced last June, Grand Forks has designated more than 100 properties in the local floodplain to buy and transform into part of the city’s future flood mitigation plan, which includes diking and removing. Since that funding was announced, residents in buyout areas have been dealing with the fact that the grant would only cover “current market value” for their homes, some of which lost upwards of $100,000 in value after the May 2018 flood, according to assessments conducted last winter. The city, in turn, has been cobbling together other solutions to try to level out inequities in funding, such as most recently offering straight land swap deals for some property owners.

New appraisals for targeted properties began earlier this month.

The shift in framing by the city from helping flood-affected individuals to treating those property owners as asset holders in an infrastructure project reflects a more accurate picture, said North Ruckle resident Dave Soroka, who said that the buyouts are not about restoring residents’ homes but rather about securing the city’s future.

“These people are being forced to leave, and a lot of them, they’re not happy about it,” Soroka said Friday. Taking on the city’s perspective, Soroka explained the issue: “We need their land in order to save the rest of you in future floods, so that you have a downtown core.”

Watt agreed to Soroka’s understanding of the buyout as part of an infrastructure project.

“I really want to emphasize that this is just one of the costs of the mitigation program,” the program manager said, “whether it’s concrete or costs and machinery and mobilization or whatever else.”

Last month, Watt told Soroka and other demonstrators at city hall that the properties targeted, mostly in the Ruckle neighbourhood, were chosen to be restored to the floodplain because engineering reports indicated that the area, once existing barriers are moved further back from the river bank, will help prevent water from backing up in the Kettle River and Granby River during freshet season.

Watt also said that the decision was partly economic, noting that it was cheaper to implement necessary flood mitigation measures with the properties slated for buyouts rather than use part of the low-lying downtown or to add additional protection features.

When governments require private land for public projects, it is normal to try and negotiate deals before involving the Expropriation Act, a piece of provincial legislation that dictates how public-private land deals proceed in court if no prior agreement is reached. The act says that compensation is based on the plot’s market value plus “reasonable damages,” or the market value of the land at its “highest and best use,” whichever is greater. But while the city and residents are not entering expropriation by law currently, it’s what Soroka says sits at the end of the path.

“We’ve entered upon the path outlined by the Expropriation Act,” he said, “so call it what you want, but but we’re on the expropriation path.”

At the moment though, the city is looking to increase affected residents’ involvement in the design of the buyout process to achieve its goal of establishing fair and mutually agreed deals with property owners. As such, the city also publicly recognized last week that they were not transparent enough with property owners throughout the planning process.

“When the city heard in June that funders would not support pre-flood values, we should have engaged with affected residents right away to find solutions,” Watt said. “On behalf of the city, I apologize, and promise to enhance communication and consultation.”

The program manager said that dialogue and greater input from affected landowners is key to achieving deals. “I think it does change and how we’re trying to do things and and we are really recognizing that, for the solutions here to work, we really have to work together as a community and try to explore solutions with people that are most affected.”

Soroka, who said he noticed a shift in the relationship between city officials and property owners at a November meeting, agreed.

“I think [Watt]’s realizing what it’s going to take to accomplish that and it’s going to take a lot of a lot of listening understanding and patience,” Soroka said. “But it’s going to also take a good a good understanding of what it is the law provides for us.”


@jensenedw
Jensen.edwards@grandforksgazette.ca

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