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La Crosse is looking to lift some of its most vulnerable properties out of the floodplain. City officials are preparing a new relief program that could help some residents elevate their homes enough to escape the growing burden of flood insurance.

La Crosse now has 1,893 properties listed within the floodplain, almost 80 percent of them on the North Side, saddled with increasing rates for federal flood insurance coverage.

The city won’t be able to help all those who live under the shadow of the perceived flood risk. But the proposed program will start chipping away at reducing the number of homes, starting in 2016, while the city looks at what might be done for relief in the long term, city Planner Jason Gilman said.

The program would:

  • Use $250,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds, at up to $25,000 per property, to have low- to moderate-income homeowners in the floodplain do housing rehabilitation and replacement.
  • Establish a revolving loan fund with $250,000 annually that would provide up to $25,000 per property, again to elevate or improve structures enough to have them taken out of federal floodplain maps. Loan payments would be spread over 20 years and be 50 percent forgivable when the work results in a successful FEMA certification the property no longer is considered at risk.
  • Offer point-of-sale incentives so those ready to put their homes on the market can qualify for matching reimbursement grants of up to $12,500, from the city or private financing to raise the property out of the floodplain before it sells. The property owner could use home equity as the match and then theoretically ask more for the home at sale to recoup what was invested in the floodplain mitigation. But whoever buys the home would not have to worry about flood insurance.

This would be similar to what Minnesota did to encourage residents to get away from private septic systems but, unlike across the river, would not be mandated, Gilman said.

The 2016 capital improvement budget included $250,000 for floodplain home replacement, but additional revenue sources will be needed. The city is looking at whether federal lending programs Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae might play a role in the loans, along with private banks and other partners, Gilman said.

The properties all would have to be in the 1 percent annual chance flood zone and be valued at $50,000 or more to qualify, he said. They also must demonstrate need, either in paying flood insurance or by proving the floodplain status hinders its marketability.

Property owners within the floodplain now can’t make certain types of improvements, such as expanding a porch or building an addition, and renovations can’t exceed 50 percent of the home’s value without requiring the property be raised above the flood level.

It essentially keeps the overall property tax base stagnant in those areas, since only minimal work can be done to enhance a home’s value.

The city already is moving to correct a group of structures FEMA believes were improperly built in the floodplain. They include 42 accessory buildings — mostly garages — that have floors less than 2 feet below the flood level and should be easy fixes.

Another 16 side structures even further below the flood level will be looked at for wet-floodproofing treatments, and two commercial buildings will be evaluated for dry floodproofing. The most problematic and potentially costly fixes are 35 residential properties that will be remediated on a case-by-case basis.

Gilman acknowledged some structures will be too far below the flood level or too low-value to justify trying to raise. They will have to evaluate each home on cost versus return.

“This isn’t a one-size-fits-all program, and that’s why we’re trying to create a toolbox,” Gilman said.

And it will be a starting point, he said, toward developing a more comprehensive plan.

“We’re trying to address the challenges and issues on all these fronts,” Mayor Tim Kabat said. “The long-term strategy is, we want to get as many of these properties out of the floodplain as possible.”

Gilman and city floodplain manager Doug Kerns also have been working with the office of U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a La Crosse resident, on further federal assistance to alleviate the floodplain problem in the city.

“We just want to make sure what we do is going to have solid, long-lasting effects, that we have federal recognition,” Kerns said.

A topic of discussion as well is bolstering La Crosse’s 50-year-old levee system, as some North Side residents and city leaders have advocated as a way to lift the flood insurance requirement over a larger area.

There is a fear each home taken out of the floodplain widens the gap between what it will cost to upgrade the levees versus the property saved by the better barrier. FEMA already has La Crosse at a low priority for flood mitigation because the city hasn’t seen significant damage from river flooding since 1965.

That’s primarily due to the levee system, a sore spot for the city in that FEMA doesn’t recognize the earthen berms because they weren’t built to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers standards yet have held even in high-water years like 2001, when other communities along the Mississippi River were inundated.

La Crosse has 7 miles of levees, in seven sections mostly set up on the North Side. The city annually inspects them to remove trees, fill any holes made by animals and otherwise maintain their integrity.

But they were built in haste as the waters rose in 1965, using what materials the city had at hand, not the clay-type soils the Corps requires to keep the barrier more resistant to water. The La Crosse levees aren’t as wide as they should be, either and have slopes that are too steep.

Some are on private property, or are so close to buildings that any expansion probably would require property acquisition and demolition, Public Works Director Dale Hexom said.

That they work is inconsequential and might even have hurt La Crosse, since the community doesn’t have the repetitive loss needed to justify aid to improve the levees to the point where it would count as reliable protection.

The city has pushed for some type of provisional recognition of the levees but gained little traction, Kerns said. And while the Army Corps may take another look as part of its Silver Jackets program to address flood risks, the general message has been that levee improvements are not an option for La Crosse, Kerns said.

In weighing the costs of the project, a 1989 analysis showed the levees would protect only 64 cents in property for every $1 spent, Hexom said.

While Kerns disputes that ratio, he does agree the city could potentially get more out of other floodplain assistance, such as raising homes, than it might see from bigger, broader levees.

“Levees are expensive, and they’re expensive to keep,” Kerns said. “Is the money better spent mitigating the areas the levees are expected to protect?”

“Levees are expensive, and they’re expensive to keep. Is the money better spent mitigating the areas the levees are expected to protect?” Doug Kerns, floodplain manager

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