By Vanesa Brashier, firstname.lastname@example.org
Come hell or high water, some residents of New River Lake Estates say they will not leave their riverfront community despite being offered pre-Hurricane Harvey fair market value buyouts for their homes.
At a town hall meeting on Friday, April 26, roughly 30 residents of New River Lake Estates met with Pct. 2 Commissioner Greg Arthur, David Douglas with the county’s engineering and permits department and Tyler Smith, an acquisitions-buyout grant administrator with Grant Works, to learn more details about the $6.7 million in grant funding that has been approved for Liberty County by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered through the General Land Office of Texas (GLO). After fees for grant administration, title company costs and legal bills, the county actually has $5.9 million to spend on buyouts.
“The General Land Office of Texas, after Hurricane Harvey, came in and made allotments to 12 different counties in this area. Liberty County is one of the 12. Liberty County was awarded $4.6 million for repair of infrastructure – roads, bridges and things of that nature, and $6.7 million for buyouts. Commissioner Arthur has the precinct with areas most prone to flooding. His precinct runs right along the Trinity. There is a floodway through his precinct – a floodway, not a flood plain,” Douglas explained prior to the town hall meeting.
Because the properties are in a floodway, owners cannot even secure permits from the county to build a home or add improvements, Douglas added.
The town hall meeting was led by Angela Yarbrough at her home. She explained that when news came that the county was considering eminent domain to acquire the properties, residents were upset and feared they would lose their properties by force.
“The reason for this meeting is when this community reads articles in the news using words such as eminent domain acquisitions and buyouts, it scared us,” Yarbrough said. “We are die-hard, river bottom dwellers. We don’t want to go. We just want to know what our options are if we choose to stay.”
Yarbrough told the county leaders that the residents who have lived in the community, some for three generations, know the river and the perils it brings, particularly during times of flooding.
“We accept those consequences if we choose to stay,” she said.
Arthur explained that the county initially considered using eminent domain to buy out homes in New River Lake Estates and Sam Houston Lake Estates – the two communities that currently are targeted, but has since moved to voluntary buyouts, meaning the owners have to agree to the sale of their property.
The move away from eminent domain to voluntary buyouts is because eminent domain battles would eat up a large amount of the grant money in legal fees, something the county would rather avoid.
“If we go eminent domain, there will be some folks who won’t want to leave. Do we really want to go to court and go through all of that to force that person to leave?” said Douglas.
New River Lake Estates and Sam Houston Lake Estates were picked as the first communities to buy out because the county is spending large sums to keep the communities accessible for small groups of residents. Sam Houston Lake Estates has about 20-30 residents while New River Lake Estates has about 60, Arthur said.
“Any time a fire truck or ambulance goes down in Sam Houston Lakes Estates, I’m having to send a dozer to pull them out when they get stuck,” Arthur said.
New River, while easily accessible at the moment, likely will be cut off during the next major flood event. The former road is not about 50-75 feet from the riverbank with much of the old road base now at the bottom of the Trinity River.
When the road washed out during Hurricane Harvey, the county built an access road, some running right along a sandbar on private land, just so residents could get in and out of their neighborhood. Arthur said there is no more land available for another access road, plus the costs would be prohibitively expensive.
Arthur said that while the homes in New River Lake Estates might be nicer than some in other riverfront communities, it all boils down to access and what the county can afford.
“If we lose access to this community, how would we get you in and out? The road we have is on private property. At some point in the future, it is going to be gone,” he said.
Another resident chimed in to say, “As long as we’ve got a pig trail, we’re fine.”
But even a pig trail might be impossible if the county is required to build and maintain it, county officials contend.
“The cost for a new road would be around $20 million because it would have to include a bridge. The county’s whole annual budget for the year is $30 million, so we just can’t afford to spend the money on a new road,” Douglas added.
Some residents, tired of the back-to-back flooding the area has seen in recent years, say they are ready to go and are looking forward to a buyout.
“I am one of the ones who want to be bought out. I am tired. I want to go. I don’t want to go through another flood again. My brothers want to stay but I am leaving,” she said. “We need some sort of agreement where the ones who want to stay can stay and the ones who want to go can go. There are some older residents here in bad health and they don’t like the idea of an ambulance not being able to get back here if the road washes out.”
Arthur said one of his concerns, too, is that someone would be denied medical care because emergency responders could not reach them.
“We just want to know the options for us. We accept the consequences of living on this river. We know we are going to get flooded in from time to time and have to get in by boat. I’ve done it all my life,” Yarbrough said. “We just want to know there will be some way to manage this situation, so the people aren’t scared and feel like they are being forced to leave.”
The way the voluntary buyout program works is that residents in the two flood-prone communities are invited to participate. In that participation, they can withdraw their application at any time at no expense to them if they get cold feet and decide not to sell.
“Even if you think you are not interested in the buyout, you can fill out the forms and go all the way through the process and still walk away, and none of us will have hurt feelings,” Smith explained. “If you are simply interested in seeing a number for your property, you might want to work with us.”
Once the application is submitted, a property owner meets with a case manager, who will help them finish the paperwork. As the money for the buyout grant comes from HUD, 70 percent of benefits must go to low- to moderate-income households, so proof of income from pay stubs or tax returns would be required.
“We must ensure that the homes we purchase are not considered second homes or vacation homes. Second-homes are not eligible. They must be a person’s primary residence, a tenant’s primary residence, intended to be a primary residence or intended to be a tenant’s residence,” Smith said. Applicants must also be U.S. citizens and lived at the property at the time of Hurricane Harvey.
Once the paperwork is collected, an appraisal would be made on the property.
“This is a forensic appraisal because we are evaluating your home as it was prior to Hurricane Harvey,” Smith said. “You would be invited to that appraisal, so in theory, you would walk through your property with the appraiser, answering questions and helping them come up with an accurate evaluation.”
The appraisals will be performed by independent and objective appraisers with no affiliations to the county and with no interest in the buyouts.
“It’s objective, and that’s what you want it to be. In addition to the appraisal, we would do an environmental inspection,” Smith said. “After the appraisal and environmental inspection, and once you’ve turned in all the paperwork and filled out all the forms, you will get a copy of the appraisal in the mail.”
Appraisals may be appealed if the property owner is not satisfied with the offer from the county.
“The way the offer works is that it will be pre-storm market value minus any benefits you were given [related to Hurricane Harvey],” Smith said. “Should you accept the offer, it becomes very much like a regular real estate transaction. You would meet with a title company for the deed transfer.”
To encourage residents to leave these communities, financial incentives for relocation may be available.
The county hopes to be ready for applications by mid-summer or early fall once the application, guidelines and displacement plan are approved by county commissioners and the GLO.
“I know how long it is going to take us to do our part but I don’t know how long it will take to get the GLO’s approval, or how long the feedback between us and the GLO will take on the documents,” Smith said.
Arthur plans to meet with residents in the two communities as often as necessary as the process continues in the coming weeks.
“I promise you this won’t be the last meeting we will have,” he said.