An Outpouring Of Opportunities
By Robert Fonte
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / petermooij
When the Stark County Park District in Canton, Ohio, in creating a Countywide Trail and Greenway Plan to expand its park system, built a 300-mile network of recreational trails, it could not have foreseen that preserving and restoring flood plains would become a valuable strategy in reaching its goals. But such has been the case. In the last 8 years, the district—which serves 375,000 rural and urban residents 1 hour south of Cleveland—has become the “go-to” agency for removal of flood-prone properties from flood plains. In exchange, the district receives the cleared land and preserves it in perpetuity as recreational green space, and some of it is used for hiking and biking trails.
Removing properties from floodplains:
- Reduces or permanently eliminates future risk to lives and property
- Reduces or eliminates claims under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)
- Returns thousands of tax dollars to the community
- Implements projects in accordance with state, federal, and local priorities.
Among the benefits of removing such properties:
- Properties that might otherwise deteriorate from repeated flooding and become abandoned are removed, preserving nearby property values.
- Owners and their lenders are compensated, allowing families to relocate to safer homes.
- With an expanded flood plain close by, adjacent neighbors’ homes are less likely to flood during future rains. Local appraisers, demolition contractors, and real-estate companies benefit from increased business, and the park district fulfills its environmental mission.
A Steady Stream Of Properties
The park district’s role in preserving flood plains began in 2003 when a countywide drainage task force was convened, and participants realized that many of the proposed hiking and bicycling trails could appropriately be located in flood plains, whose other uses are severely limited. Two years later, the agency was asked to oversee removal of private residences from a flood plain near county-owned property along Sandy Creek in a small rural community. Of 20 homeowners initially approached to participate in the voluntary
federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), only three residents signed up. Those property owners were paid for their homes based on state-approved appraisals, and the homes were demolished. Five parcels totaling 1.4 acres became green space. Seventy-five percent of the funds for the $365,000 project came from the federal government, while 12.5 percent came from the state of Ohio, and 12.5 percent came from the park district, much of the latter being in-kind administrative services.
Since that initial project, the county park district has completed two more, including the removal of one private residence and one large (21,132-square-foot) commercial property that served as administrative and treatment offices for foster children, generating additional grants of more than $1.75 million. The 2.16 acres of flood plain that have been restored to green space are now owned by the park district, and can be used for future recreational purposes, such as walking and bicycling trails, so long as the flood plain is not compromised. Another grant to remove multiple private residences from near a flood-prone stream next to a city park has the potential to yield more than 2.5 acres to the park district.
Funds for the HMGP come from the federal government, and are administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and passed through to its state counterparts. In Ohio, the park district works with staff from the Ohio Emergency Management Agency (OEMA) that provides invaluable assistance in writing the grants and determining cost-benefit analyses for each parcel.
The first requirement to participate in the HMGP is to adopt local or countywide FEMA-approved mitigation plans; states must also have FEMA-approved Standard State Mitigation Plans. Both agencies outline priorities and possible solutions, including identification of flood-prone areas that might benefit from removal of structures from flood plains. Laws adopted since 1970 limit the construction of properties in flood-prone areas, but many structures built before that time remain. As roadways and commercial and residential structures “grow” upstream, properties downstream suffer more frequent flooding. The NFIP was developed in response to such suffering, and buyouts from the federal HMGP may be an owner’s only recourse.
If your particular area has suffered from repeated flooding, and if affected properties are near one of your parks, trails, or other public lands, now is a good time to contact the county or municipal Emergency Management Agency or Flood Plain Coordinator to see if the required hazard mitigation plans have been adopted locally and statewide. Together you can determine high-risk properties whose owners might want to move out of the flood plain. State legislators can sometimes pinpoint potential properties as well, since homeowners who have suffered repeated flooding will complain—repeatedly—begging the state “to do something” to help. Assisting in alleviating those calls can earn the officials’ gratitude, as well as the homeowner’s. The state legislator might even be willing to call the required public meeting to discuss possible participation in the voluntary grant program, which is critical to determine which landowners might be willing to consider a buyout and which are not interested.
Although the program creates goodwill in the community, it is not a “cash cow.” The majority of funds are given to the homeowner, and other funds are spent for appraisals, environmental inspections, asbestos removal, closing costs, demolition, grading, seeding, and possible hydrology studies. All or a portion of the staff costs related to overseeing the project may be eligible for reimbursement, or may be used as matching funds. These efforts will generate goodwill, prevent the deterioration of neighborhoods, preserve flood plains, and generate maintenance responsibilities for the new property. Without the program, however, the community will have less parkland to develop, less green space for wildlife habitat, and continued flooding.
To realize the goodwill benefits from such an undertaking, it is important to have a project manager with good customer-service and communication skills. Families participating in this program must understand that the program is voluntary and they must be kept apprised of contractors who will visit their homes, even before they decide to participate. Some may be disappointed in the decreased value of their property; if this happens, the grant allows them to obtain a second appraisal at their own expense.
In addition to staff time, a park district may have to pay for a federal audit for those who manage more than $1 million in federal grants in a single year. All or part of the expected cost of the audit can be incorporated into the grant budget. Other expected costs are listed in the paragraph above.
Some HMGP grants do not require any match, but most require a 25-percent match, which may be one of the biggest challenges. The state may be able to provide half of the required funds. Counties, conservancy districts, municipalities, or local foundations are other possible sources for matching funds, if a park district cannot provide the match in cash or force-account labor.
For more information, visit http://www.fema.gov/hazard-mitigation-grant-program or your state’s emergency-management agency website.
Robert A. Fonte, Director, Stark County Park District since 1994, and Chair of the Advocacy Committee of the Ohio Parks & Recreation Assn., was a recent winner of a “Trail Advocacy Award for Ohio” from American Trails. He can be reached at email@example.com.