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Army Corps plan for Charleston flooding won't include home buyouts

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High Tide Flooding (copy)

Rodney Clement gingerly steps from the sidewalk to the street through floodwaters around his home on Aiken Street on Oct. 27, 2015. The Army Corps of Engineers is encouraging cities across the country to use eminent domain to force sales of frequently flooded homes, but the practice isn't on the table in Charleston. Grace Beahm/Staff

The Army Corps of Engineers is encouraging cities across the country to use eminent domain to force sales of frequently flooded homes, but the practice isn't on the table in Charleston. 

The Corps launched a study at the beginning of 2019 examining how to protect the Charleston peninsula from storm surge. It is one of several studies of flooding fixes around the country and starts with a broad range of options, from stabilizing shorelines with plantings to building large structures like levees or surge walls.  

In Charleston, the Corps has opted for those structural fixes, said Charleston's Chief Resilience Officer Mark Wilbert, who is familiar with the draft plan.

It does not include buying and demolishing oft-flooded homes.

"Any buyouts that might be required on this project, one: are not decided yet, haven't even been looked at; and two: they are directly related to the placement of any structural barrier or wall," Wilbert told The Post and Courier.  

The plan is still under development and Wilbert declined to give specific details beyond ruling out buyouts.

Glenn Jeffries, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps' Charleston District, confirmed in an email the tentative plan does not include home buyouts. It will be available for the public to view April 20.

The New York Times reported Wednesday the Corps is encouraging eminent domain, which governments can use to compel home sales, elsewhere. The move signals a new frontier in how a federal agency deals with oft-flooded homes as damages from sea-level rise and climate change mount.

In most of the federally funded buyouts across the country, homeowners are given the option of being paid to leave, but it's not mandatory. The Corps' insistence on using eminent domain is a significant departure from other federal agencies. 

Money provided through the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Federal Emergency Management Agency is only used to buy homes from willing sellers. FEMA, which funds most buyouts in the country, explicitly prohibits threatening homeowners with eminent domain, said A.R. Siders, who studies coastal retreat at the University of Delaware. 

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Two construction workers take a break while demolishing townhomes in the Shadowmoss neighborhood of West Ashley on July 10, 2019, in Charleston. File/Staff

Charleston has already bought and demolished 42 homes with funds from those agencies, and has 11 more in the pipeline, according to Stephen Julka, the city's floodplain manager. 

The Holy City's flooding problems are wide-ranging and come from rising seas, extreme rainfall, tropical storms and urban development in a low landscape. The fast-growing region has so far logged more than a fifth of the National Flood Insurance Program claims in South Carolina, according to an analysis of public FEMA data, or damages totaling almost $150 million.  

The Corps' policy of forcing sales, by contrast, is less common and little understood by researchers, Siders said.

Generally, academics understand that U.S. buyouts programs aren't usually mandatory because of constitutional property rights. Eminent domain, on the other hand, is typically used to move a structure in the way of a public project, such as a road or bridge. Property owners moved in that process are compensated for their land by the government.

Siders said the mandatory component could be unpopular among local officials compelled to enforce it, but that it signals the seriousness with which the Corps considers flooding. 

"The problem is so severe we are now willing to use tools we were hesitant to use before," Siders said. 

The potential for forced buyouts has posed a significant challenge for officials in the Florida Keys. Corps engineers suggested in February demolishing thousands of houses there, said Rhonda Haag, the chief resilience officer of Monroe County, where the Keys are located. 

The study there was originally focused on buttressing U.S. 1, the only road in and out of the island chain. But Haag said engineers both broadened their scope as the study continued and ruled out building seawalls because the cost and environmental impacts would be too great.

As they've continued to study the islands since February, they've taken many homes out of consideration for buyouts, Haag said. But buyouts are just one of a menu of options the Corps has presented, along with elevating some homes and using living shorelines to stabilize land around the highway. 

Monroe County leaders may not accept the homebuying recommendation at all when they vote on the Corps' proposals in May.

In nearby Miami-Dade County, where the Corps has also suggested buying out homes, the government there sees eminent domain as a "tool of last resort," said Jim Murley, the county's chief resilience officer. The county is most interested in the Corps' proposals to protect its critical facilities, like police and fire stations or water-treatment plants. 

The Keys, Miami-Dade and Charleston are just a few of several communities around the country to engage in the Corps' "three-by-three" studies, or $3 million, 3-year inquiries into possible flood protections.

Local governments are lured to the program in part because it provides a light at the end of the tunnel of costly infrastructure work: If Congress approves it, the federal government will cover 65 percent of the bill. 

Haag said Monroe officials know there's no guarantee, but, "If we don't go through the process and don’t get in line, we lose the opportunity."

And in Charleston, that same road to federal money could be a lifeline. The city is in the midst of a downtown drainage tunnel project that's tens of millions of dollars over budget and looking at a backlog of other flooding work that officials have estimated could eventually reach $2 billion.

After the Corp's plans for Charleston are released in April, the public will be able to weigh in and the proposal will be updated with that input in mind.

If City Council ultimately gets on board, it will have to commit to paying for its part of the Army Corps work in May 2021. 

Bryan Brussee and Mikaela Porter contributed to this report. 

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