Delay of levee vote should prompt greater communication


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On Tuesday night, the Iowa City City Council was set to vote on the next phase of building a levee to protect the Idyllwild neighborhood from floods similar to 2008 levels.

But the City Council delayed the vote (which would hire a consulting firm to revisit the plan) to Aug. 2, in deference to a swirling controversy: Some residents who wouldn’t be protected by the plan are protesting, there are doubts about the efficacy of communications, and residents of other neighborhoods have expressed concerns over potential repercussions. While swift action to prevent another 2008-style disaster is important, the move to push back the vote is prudent — and gives time for residents’ concerns to be fully addressed.

The proposed levee would be constructed near the Idyllwild neighborhood and Foster Road. Idyllwild residents fully support the levee, which would be funded by funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But residents along Taft Speedway who wouldn’t be protected by the levee are upset about being left at the mercy of floodwaters. Parkview Terrace residents on the other side of the river are also worried: They claim the levee would cause the floodplain to redirect floodwaters into their neighborhood.

Taft Speedway residents assert that they were not well-informed by the city about being left out of the levee or about a buyout option from FEMA. The city began the buyout process on July 23, 2008, contacting residents through a blue informational form. Residents were supposed to return the form with a yes or a no and any comments. However, the attorney for Taft Speedway residents, Wally Taylor, contends that the residents he represents were never informed about a buyout option.

“Residents didn’t know anything about a buyout. They’ve been ignored,” Taylor told the DI Editorial Board. “The city is claiming it’s a matter of counting numbers, and the Taft Speedway people don’t count. That’s pretty crass. Idyllwild folks are being selfish.”

With this level of ostensible miscommunication and dissatisfaction, the push for an outside expert is understandable.

Originally, Stanley Engineering recommended the levee plan for the Idyllwild neighborhood and surrounding area. However, after Taft Speedway residents raised their concerns, the Iowa Department of Economic Development suspended the grant for the levee project, requiring that the city commission an outside firm to conduct a study in response to citizens’ worries.

Both Iowa City and neighborhood residents agree that an outside firm is necessary.

“The city is looking forward to having the study done,” Iowa City community-development planner David Purdy told the DI Editorial Board. “It will quantify all the effects, address everyone’s concerns, identify other alternatives, and answer a lot of questions.”

Taft Speedway residents see the commission of an outside firm as a positive achievement.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Taylor said. “Residents are definitely in support of an outside firm coming into the process.”

But with the raising of new concerns from Parkview Terrace, the scope of the consultation is expanding. Initially, the consulting firm would only conduct meetings of Idyllwild and Taft Speedway residents; following complaints from the other side of the river, the Iowa Department of Economic Development has recommended that the consulting firm broaden its operation to these neighborhoods, too.

The City Council is considering bringing in HDR Inc., an engineering and consulting firm; the consultations would cost the city approximately $84,500. In approximately three months, HDR would gather neighborhood input regarding flood-mitigation ideas and concerns, identify alternatives to a levee, and then conduct a formal public meeting. There, the company would gather recommendations and reports from the neighborhood regarding alternatives. After this process, a final recommendation will be made by HDR on the best option for the neighborhood.

This best option could remain to be the levee, it could be some other sort of flood-mitigation tool, or it could be for the city to do nothing at all.

With the expanded scope of the project, the City Council’s decision to delay the vote until August makes sense. Ultimately, residents will have to trust the judgment of the outside firm in choosing the best option for their community. The longer the debate goes on, the longer the area goes without disaster mitigation; it’s important to act quickly — but not if that means ignoring the voices of people who might be affected by the new levee.

And perhaps the expanded time frame will allow Iowa City to inquire about any miscommunications that may have occurred in 2008 and take steps to avoid leaving people out in the future.

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