AP NEWS

County considers buyouts, road repairs with nearly $12M in federal funds

March 21, 2019

Some 19 months after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Gulf Coast, Liberty County Commissioners are still dealing with the aftermath.

County officials are seeking federal funding to repair roads and buyout land that will soon be designated Disaster Risk Reduction areas.

The court held a discussion with their grant managers Grant Works to discuss the process and procedures to recover money in two major areas: infrastructure and disaster risk areas during a meeting on March 19.

Infrastructure improvements

Numerous county roads and bridges suffered damage during Harvey and the county will receive nearly $5 million in federal funds administered by the General Land Office of Texas to help with those repairs.

Bruce Spitzengel, chief administrator with Grant Works, said they were seeking help from the county precincts to document the roads that were closed, how long they were closed, and based on that information, they could prove impact.

The roads that were impacted, however, cannot be rebuilt the same.

“It would have to be an improved road or widened road according to their eligibility guides. Raising it or widening it would meet the guidelines, and that would allow you to clean out your ditches if you’re putting in larger culverts in the widening process,” he said.

In addition to the road conditions themselves, he also suggested it would be good to know whether emergency vehicles were able to get down those roads or not.

A new federal act proposed in September and signed into law in October, called the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, affected FEMA and requires them to consider latent damage that happened to roads as well.

“Some of the damage to the roads could have come from debris trucks and heavy equipment going down the roads and tearing them up,” he said.

After the roads sat under water for as many days as it did, it softened up the base and the road would be deteriorated.

To aid in the financial recovery, he suggested that they get maps of the roads before Harvey, which would be difficult since many of them are not shown on Google.

Instead, they may have to get statements from an engineer acknowledging that the roads were damaged as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Some $4.9 million has been earmarked for infrastructure: roads, bridges, and ditches.

At least 6 percent would go toward grant administration, while 15 percent would be consumed by engineering services.

Work on providing the necessary details is underway.

Buyouts on the way

There are populated areas along the river that flood every time there is a water event. Tyler Smith, who was hired Feb. 1 by Grant Works for his strong background in buyouts and acquisitions, addressed questions of the commissioners on how the process would work.

Smith pointed out the county has received $6.7 million for buyouts.

“We’re not going to be able buy everyone out. We’re going to concentrate on homes along the river,” said County Judge Jay Knight.

Some commissioners thought it might be fair to allow each to name the properties they wanted to see bought out from their own areas, but one commissioner disagreed.

“I don’t see that it’s going to do any good for us to buy out one, two or three homes in our area, have another flood and more homes to still deal with,” said Commissioner James Reaves.

Instead, his proposal would see the money buy out one particular area like Sam Houston Lake Estates or New River Lake Estates.

“At least once a month I have to send a dozer down there in the middle of the night to pull out an emergency vehicle,” said Commissioner Greg Arthur.

Arthur estimated about 60 families still live in the New River area that could be bought out.

“Lake Livingston Water Company still has a plant in the back, and they can’t hardly get to it,” Arthur said.

“They have to go and check it about every two weeks.”

Arthur met with a company official who said they were about to cut their losses and give it to the people back there and move on.

There’s a half-a-mile of road that goes into the subdivision that’s been washed into the river.

“We built a temporary road on a sandbar around there and when they get the next flood, it will be gone. There’s really no place there to build a road. We’d have to come back around through another subdivision, and it would have to be a bridge for about three-quarters of a mile,” Arthur said.

But that project would be costly, he noted.

Knight suggested once the buyouts would be complete, the land could be deeded to the Texas Parks and Wildlife.

One commissioner said that about 80 percent of Sam Houston already belonged to the agency.

Smith told the commissioners that the process would be to buy out the land, demolish the homes, and return it to its original state or deed it for parks and recreation, but no development would be allowed on the land.

“Acquisitions are fundamentally different,” he said, “in that after you buy out the land, you can redevelop it for a resilient housing activity.”

In New York, where Smith worked formerly, they did elevated rental housing for low income people.

Voluntary and involuntary buyouts

With the funds that are available to commissioners, they qualify to use imminent domain to buy parcels of land.

The caveat to the buyouts is that commissioners must decide to use one or the other for all the buyouts—either all voluntary, or all by imminent domain.

“All those in the county must fall under the same designation. You can’t do 80 percent voluntary and 20 percent involuntary. All the owners in the Disaster Risk Reduction areas must be notified upfront that you will be using imminent domain or voluntary buyout to acquire their homes,” he told commissioners.

Once the addresses are targeted, commissioners must send out voluntary acquisition notices or a letter of imminent domain.

“Buyouts also allow us to pay people the pre-storm fair market value on the properties. So we will be using forensic appraisals that value the homes before they were impacted by Hurricane Harvey,” Smith said.

They will also be able to offer relocation incentives.

“You don’t want to lose your tax base and so you can use part of your budget to offer incentives to keep them in your county outside of the dangerous area,” he said.

The money comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and so income verification will be done as well as a review of any monies that were already given to the homeowner for Harvey relief. Each offer to buy out would be based on each homeowner’s individual assessment.

Verification includes making sure they are U. S. citizens, that they are the actual owners of the property, and various other forms of documentation.

The buyout program has an approximate budget of $6.74 million. At least 12 percent would be used for administrative and project delivery costs. The remaining $5.93 million is for buyouts, eligible incentives and demolishing costs.

Lead-based paint and asbestos removal would also be included in demolishing costs.

Smith did suggest that demolition costs would be lower if they did do neighborhoods versus scattered site selections.

Demolition was expected to cost close to $1 million-plus leaving approximately $4.1 million for the actual buyouts.

Commissioners have been tasked with deciding the areas they want to buyout and then it will be broken down parcel by parcel on which properties will be subject to either voluntary or involuntary buyout.

The project could last up to two or three years and the process could begin as soon as a few weeks. No decisions were made during the workshop and proposals would next appear in regular commissioner’s court.

dtaylor@hcnonline.com