Metro plans to turn most vulnerable areas to green space
By Michael Cass and Natalia Mielczarek • THE TENNESSEAN • June 23, 2010
Brian Anthony was getting ready to sell his home when about 30 inches of water poured into it on the first weekend of May. He and his wife, Rachelle, had to scrap their plans to move to Costa Rica and focus on pulling their lives together after the record flood.
Nearly two months later, Anthony can expect a buyout offer from Metro government, which wants to get his Pennington Bend home out of harm's way. But he said he's not sure selling is the right move because time might not be on his side.
"If they expect us to make mortgage payments … and not live there, that's kind of foolish," said Anthony, who has owned his house since 2001. "I'm not really sure what to do."
After weeks of anticipation, Metro took the first step Tuesday to try to buy homes and, where necessary, clear out neighborhoods in the areas most prone to flooding. The process could change the character of some neighborhoods, replacing established communities with parks and green space that won't be developed again.
The city mailed letters to the owners of 305 properties that are in the floodway, the area where water flows most swiftly during a flood. The buyout program is the government's most dramatic step yet to help flood victims recover.
But with some 11,680 homes and businesses damaged when more than 13 inches of rain hit Nashville, many people will inevitably be disappointed.
"I understand the process," said Councilman Bo Mitchell, whose Bellevue district is full of homes that were badly damaged but won't be bought — at least not anytime soon — because they aren't in the areas that are officially the most vulnerable.
"But if you've lost your home and all its contents, it's still hard to accept that initially this isn't going to be offered to you."
Issue is safety, not aid
Metro officials say the program is a public safety measure, not a housing assistance plan. Most of the buildings that Metro hopes to buy sustained damage greater than 50 percent of their appraised value, while some were added to the list so they wouldn't be isolated if every neighboring property was removed.
Property owners, who could begin receiving letters today, have until Aug. 1 to return them to Metro Water Services, which will apply to state and federal emergency management agencies for approval of any buyouts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay at least 75 percent of the cost, with the city and state covering the remainder.
Metro plans to clear every property it buys and keep the space open. The city will be able to turn the land into public parks or wildlife refuges but won't be allowed to sell it or develop it. The green space will help reduce future flooding by soaking up rainwater.
"The goal of the mitigation program is to break a cycle of disaster and repeated damage," said Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt, whose agency performed some 700 rescue operations during the May flood.
Metro said TEMA and FEMA have estimated it will take 12 to 24 months for the money to be made available for home purchases. The program is voluntary. Property owners need to return their letters to start the process, but that won't automatically commit them to selling.
The targeted homes are spread around the county, representing 15 of the 35 Metro Council districts. But about 85 percent of them are in just five council districts, dominated by Bordeaux, the Pennington Bend area in Donelson and the Nations area of West Nashville.
Owners weigh options
Councilman Lonnell Matthews Jr. of Bordeaux said Mayor Karl Dean's administration was being as fair as possible with the buyouts. Matthews said he expects eligible constituents will weigh many factors before deciding to stay or sell.
"For some people that may be landlords, this may put them in a better situation where they can get out of some property," he said. "For some of the older residents, this may be putting them in a situation with more financial burden on them."
Matthews said some of those residents have paid the mortgages on their homes and won't want to be in debt again, especially if they're on fixed incomes. One of them, Pamela Wood, said the entire first floor of her two-story home was wiped out — furniture, computers, televisions — and stripped, from floors to drywall.
"It depends not only on the offer," said Wood, whose home is on the buyout list. "Our house is almost paid for, so do you start all over again? I'm in my 50s. Do we really want to start with a 30-year mortgage? But we don't know what the consequences are for not accepting it."
Wood and her husband are living on the upper floor of their house, which they got 17 years ago through a repossession sale and worked tirelessly to fix up.
On the other hand, Katie and Robert Taylor, graduate students at Vanderbilt University, have made their decision about the buyout: They want it, now.
"Nobody is trying to rebuild," Katie Taylor said. "Our neighborhood is a ghost town. I take it as a sign that most people here want to be bought out.
"At this point, because we're waiting for a flood insurance check of some kind and we don't have the money to build on our own, we're just waiting. We're trying to figure out how to pay a mortgage and pay rent."
The Taylors' one-story house on Delray Court in West Nashville is a complete loss. They have lived in their cul-de-sac house for two years. Part of the roof above their living room caved in. They stripped all their floors and drywall.
"We were very relieved to find out we're on the list, but we don't know what they'll offer," Katie Taylor said. "But this is a good sign. … We have a huge mortgage note, and because we're Ph.D. students, we probably won't be in Nashville to rebuild this house and sell it in the next two years. Nobody will want to buy it because people will know it's a flood house."
Having to start over
Nancy Pennington, who owns two lots Metro wants to buy on Pennington Bend Road — the name is a coincidence — said she's also eager to sell after being flooded three times in 36 years.
"I hate to leave," she said. "But I can't go through that again. I'm kind of shellshocked at having to start over at 65. But here we go."