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Residents by flood-prone Williamson Creek ask: Should they stay or go?

Arwen Tedhams loves the wildlife she experiences as a result of living on the edge of South Austin’s Williamson Creek, especially the abundant blue jays, cardinals and woodpeckers.

She has lived in her house for nine years and doesn’t want to leave, but the large property requires a lot of maintenance. And then came the flood of Oct. 13, 2013, when the sound of rushing water interrupted her sleep.

“I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and saw my exercise balls bobbing up and down the hallway,” she said.

That was two weeks before the infamous Halloween 2013 flood that devastated hundreds of homes along Onion Creek. Somewhat overshadowed by that larger disaster, the Oct. 13 flood still damaged more than 100 homes in Austin, most of them along Williamson Creek.

When City Council members approved buyouts in September for another 230 homes along Onion Creek, they included $18 million to purchase about 70 of the highest-risk homes along Williamson Creek. The council voted Nov. 20 to buy the first three homes from that pot of money, with plans to buy dozens more after city officials iron out the logistics.

While anyone still living along Onion Creek eventually will be forced to move, the buyouts along Williamson Creek are voluntary, creating a potentially life-changing conundrum for many longtime residents: Should they sell?

The answer to that question is complicated by a major difference between the Onion Creek and Williamson Creek floods: Halloween flooding in Onion Creek last year dwarfs any flood that Williamson Creek has experienced in the last several decades, said Kevin Shunk, the city’s flood plain administrator.

“The fact that they have not seen that level of flooding makes people think there’s a lower risk than there really is,” Shunk said. “The Oct. 13 flood in Williamson Creek didn’t even represent what a 25-year flood would be.”

The risk is real, but the decision to leave or stay is not easy. The issue has created a split in the neighborhood between residents who have experienced severe flood damage and may be interested in the buyouts, and residents like Alicia Gill, a homeowner on the city’s preliminary buyout list who doesn’t want to leave in part because her house has been spared from any flooding since she bought it 20 years ago.

“It feels like you’re forced to take the buyout because we don’t know what we’re going to be left with if everybody doesn’t take it,” Gill said.

In October, dozens of Williamson Creek residents met with Shunk and other officials from the Austin Watershed Protection Department to learn about the buyouts and how flood plain regulations help determine who gets an offer. But several residents said they left the Oct. 29 meeting with more questions than they came with.

The specifics of the Williamson Creek buyout process will not be finalized until March, when the watershed department plans to bring a proposal to the City Council, Shunk told the audience. In Onion Creek, the city is planning to restore the area to parkland with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers. Part of that agreement requires that the city use eminent domain to remove homes of owners who refuse to sell.

That’s not on the table for Williamson Creek.

“It’s voluntary,” Shunk said. “You can say no.”

But it’s the fact that the buyouts are voluntary that has many residents feeling anxious about what it means for their neighborhood.

The preliminary list of high-risk homes targeted by the buyout is clustered throughout Williamson Creek between South Congress Avenue and Manchaca Road. For every person who accepts a buyout from the city, the home and its foundations will be demolished, leaving a grassy, empty lot.

Residents committed to staying in the neighborhood expressed concerns about how that could affect their community – and perhaps their property values.

“If every other house takes the buyout, what’s that going to look like? How marketable would the house be at that point?” Gill said.

Others worry about rising insurance costs since many Williamson Creek residents bought their homes long before the Army Corps of Engineers updated flood plain maps to show the high risk of flooding.

Paul Johnson bought his Williamson Creek home more than a decade ago. A few years ago, he received a letter informing him that a new study showed him much deeper in the flood plain. As a result, he would have to start paying $1,000 a year in flood insurance, with more increases likely.

“This is a middle-class neighborhood,” Johnson said. “Are we going to get pushed out by flood insurance? You add that to taxes and you get a lot of money.”

Jana Reeves’ home hasn’t flooded since she bought it in 2010, but she’s on the city’s preliminary buyout list.

Like all of the people interviewed at the meeting, Reeves would like to stay in the neighborhood, but with property values rising all around the city, she’s not sure she could afford another house in Austin.

Homes in the neighborhood have continued to sell to new owners for higher and higher prices, Reeves said, despite the impending buyouts, flood risk and insurance bills.

“I don’t want to leave Austin,” Reeves said, looking at the other homes in her cul-de-sac that are on the city’s potential buyout list. “If you want to stay, the question is, where do you go?”

For Tedhams, the answer is just about anywhere else.

Her home has flooded once in the nine years since she bought it, and she had actually decided to sell it even before last year’s flood sent six inches of water surging into the house, requiring expensive renovations: new flooring, new sheetrock and new doors and doorways.

Though she is likely eligible for a buyout, Tedhams said she wants to move on as soon as possible — but wonders if the city’s plan will make selling it more difficult.

If she is able to sell it before the council finalizes the Williamson Creek buyout process in March, then the new owners will likely receive an offer from the city sometime in the spring.

The city determines buyout priority based on flood plain maps that show each home’s risk of future flooding, Shunk said.

“Whether they just bought it a month ago or have owned it for 25 years, whoever owns (it) at the time gets the offer,” Shunk said.

But if the city’s reasoning behind the buyouts is to prevent flood damage of the highest-risk homes, Gill wonders where the line is drawn.

“The whole city of Austin is prone to flooding, that’s why we have dams,” she said. “If we experience that 100-year flood, a lot of people are going to flood. Are you going to buy out everyone?”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Arwen Tedhams’ home flooded only once in the time she has owned it, and that she wanted to sell the large property because it required a lot of maintenance.

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