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Taking a Licking

City considers possible demolition of homes to reduce Lick Creek flooding.

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Occasional flash floodwaters from the Lick Creek drainage basin aren't the only thing rising in Midtown's Evergreen Historic District.

Tempers are also rising in response to a city plan to demolish some Evergreen homes through voluntary buyouts. On September 29th, city engineers and representatives from Tetra Tech, an engineering firm hired to mitigate the years-long Lick Creek flooding problem, shared details of the plan at a public meeting at Snowden School.

"We believe buyouts are part of a comprehensive solution for the Lick Creek drainage basin, particularly in the most floodprone areas of Royster Bayou and for homes where flooding is exasperated due to their location below the bank top elevation of an adjacent creek," reads a report by Tetra Tech.

According to Tetra Tech's plan, after purchasing property in the Lick Creek basin, houses would be demolished to make way for underground retention basins to collect floodwaters. Buyout locations include stretches along Auburndale, Avalon, and Angelus in the Evergreen district.

"These are voluntary buyouts," said John Cameron, the city's deputy engineer. "In the past, when FEMA offered potential grant money to do buyouts, there were some residents who were interested in taking the offer. But most of them did not meet FEMA's conditions [which included at least 50 percent property damage from flooding events]."

Since July 2010, Memphis has received about $6.2 million in disaster recovery funds from the federal Community Development Block Grant. With that money, Cameron said, "Memphis can offer buyouts without meeting FEMA's qualifications."

Though the proposed buyouts are optional, some residents are skeptical. John Doyle Stuart, who has lived in the Evergreen district for nearly 35 years, points to the I-40 buyouts in the 1970s as an example of voluntary buyouts turning into eminent domain. He said there's too little evidence supporting the effectiveness of a buyout strategy.

"[The city is basing its decision] on models and guesses," Stuart said. "It can't address the real problem if there's no way to say if the plan will actually work. Until they put in a 21st-century drainage system [replacing the nearly century-old system that has fallen into disrepair], don't tell me that you're going to start tearing down houses."

Apart from the destruction of homes, Stuart is concerned with the welfare of his neighbors whose homes are in the proposed buyout locations.

"City buyouts would almost certainly be at market value, which in most cases wouldn't meet residents' mortgages, leaving them to pay the difference," Stuart said. "You can't tear down communities to make something green. It's not an even pay off."

Buyouts won't likely begin for at least six months, and Tetra Tech is projecting the total cost of the mitigation plan to fall between $30 million and $40 million.

This cost includes other less controversial options, such as the construction of a basin underneath the proposed Overton Square parking garage and the lowering of playing fields at Snowden School and Memphis Catholic High School to serve as above-ground retention basins during heavy rainfalls.

As for the possible demolition of homes in the Evergreen district, Cameron said nothing is set in stone: "We're currently looking at six to eight locations, but we're still gauging public opinion at this point."

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