Liberty County leaders hold workshop to discuss buyout of flood-prone homes

At a meeting in May 2019, Pct. 2 Commissioner Greg Arthur (left) reviewed maps of flood-prone communities with Tyler Smith with GrantWorks.

By Vanesa Brashier,

Hurricane Harvey dropped 60 inches of rain in Southeast Texas in 2017, shattering the U.S. storm record, according to the National Weather Service. In Liberty County, rainfall totals reached 55 inches, flooding many homes for the first time ever.

For the dozen or so riverfront communities in Liberty County, however, flood events have become an unfortunate way of life. In 2015, Liberty County had four federal disaster declarations from flooding, resulting in around $800,000 in public assistance. Subsequent flood events have only worsened home and road conditions.

To alleviate some of the financial strain caused by never-ending road and bridge repairs from flooding along the Trinity River, the county applied for and obtained $6.7 million in federal grant money through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for buyouts and property acquisitions and $4.921 million from the Texas General Land Office (GLO) for infrastructure repairs. On Tuesday, March 19, commissioners met in a workshop with representatives of GrantWorks to discuss options for how the grant money will be spent.

Bruce Spitzengel, president of GrantWorks, explains the limitations of $4.921 million in grants from the General Land Office. The money cannot be used to make improvements to roads in the flood way or main waterways.

The goal is to shut down some of the most flood-prone subdivisions in Liberty County.

“The subdivisions on the river is where we are going to concentrate,” said County Judge Jay Knight.

The two subdivisions being considered are New River Lake Estates and Sam Houston Lake Estates, both located in Pct. 2 Commissioner Greg Arthur’s district.

Arthur estimates there are 15 homes in Sam Houston Lake Estates and 60 in New River Lake Estates that would be part of the buyout.

“Lake Livingston Water Company has a water plant back there in Sam Houston Lake Estates. They can’t hardly get to it and they have to check on it every couple of weeks. They are about to cut their losses and give it to the people back there,” Arthur said.

Poor road conditions have resulted in emergency vehicles being stuck on a regular basis.

“At least once a month, I have to send a dozer into Sam Houston Lake Estates to pull someone out,” the commissioner said.

Conditions in New River Lake Estates are only slightly better.

“We have about a half-mile of road that washed into the river. We built a temporary road on the sandbar. If we get another flood, that road will be washed out, and there is no place left to build one,” Arthur said.

According to Tyler Smith with GrantWorks, the county has two options for obtaining land in the flood-prone subdivisions – buyouts and acquisitions. With buyouts, the county would purchase the property and demolish the home. The land would not be developed again and would likely be awarded to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. With acquisitions, the land can be purchased and redeveloped for a resilient housing project.

“Just from hearing you guys talk, it sounds like you are looking more toward buying out. In the buyout program, we have a couple of different options in terms of voluntary versus involuntary. You are able, using these funds, to use eminent domain to acquire properties,” Smith said. “If you make the decision to do that, every buyout in the county must fall under the involuntary designation.”

Property owners must be notified up front of the county’s intentions to use eminent domain to acquire the property.

“Buyouts also allow us to pay people the pre-storm value of their homes. That value is before they were impacted by Hurricane Harvey. It also allows us to pay relocation incentives because buyouts are a housing program,” Smith said. “We are able to use part of our budget for incentives to get them to buy new homes outside the danger area.”

The amount a homeowner is paid will be offset by what they received in FEMA and insurance payments following Hurricane Harvey. This avoids the duplication of benefits.

“Every offer is different because some people might have gotten insurance or FEMA money,” said Smith, adding that all settlements would be handled on a one-on-one basis.

Because the grant money comes from HUD, there are certain guidelines that apply, such as an income verification, citizenship verification and a check of the property’s ownership.

Out of the $6.7 million, 12 percent will go toward administrative expenses. The rest, roughly $5.9 million, will go toward buyouts. Of the remaining $5.9 million, at least $4.1 million must be spent on homes certified as belonging to low to moderate income residents.

“We will have $1.78 million to buy properties from families whose income is above the low to moderate income requirements,” Smith said.

Once the process begins, the county will have three years to complete the last buyout.

No action was taken on the grant funding; that determination will be made at a future commissioners court meeting.

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Before creating Bluebonnet News in 2018, Vanesa Brashier was a community editor for the Houston Chronicle/Houston Community Newspapers. During part of her 12 years at the newspapers, she was assigned as the digital editor and managing editor for the Humble Observer, Kingwood Observer, East Montgomery County Observer and the Lake Houston Observer, and the editor of the Dayton News, Cleveland Advocate and Eastex Advocate. Over the years, she has earned more than two dozen writing awards, including Journalist of the Year.

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