City planning $10.1M initiative in Mars Hill to remove 650 parcels from flood zone

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The city of Indianapolis would invest $10.1 million in flood-control projects in the Mars Hill neighborhood in hopes of removing more than 650 parcels from the federal 100-year floodplain, under a plan making its way through city hall.

The Board of Public Works on Wednesday unanimously recommended creation of a flood-control district in the southwest-side neighborhood to finance the improvements.

The plans next go to the Metropolitan Development Commission for a decision later this month. The City-County Council likely will consider the move this winter.

“This neighborhood is one of the historic flooding neighborhoods in Indianapolis,” Department of Public Works Director Dan Parker told IBJ in September. “Anytime it rains, this area floods, and so we’re trying to get the 2,600 parcels in that neighborhood, as many as possible, out of the floodplain.”

Indianapolis’ Department of Public Works is proposing a list of strategies to shrink the federal flood boundaries, as well as cut down on danger and damage in the flood-prone neighborhood.

Most of the flooding occurs along a small canal known as State Ditch, which runs north-south through the neighborhood, between Sam Jones Expressway and Kentucky Avenue.

  • Revise the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood modeling for the area. DPW officials say it’s outdated and incomplete. The assessment is missing a culvert running underneath the Sam Jones Expressway, which handles some water flow during storms, said Mike Massonne, DPW’s engineering division stormwater program manager. He spoke at the board meeting Wednesday.
  • Expand State Ditch into what’s called a two-stage ditch ($1.5 million). DPW would dig 5-to-10-foot-wide “benches” into both sides of the ditch. When it rains, the expanded ditch would be able to hold incoming water instead of overflowing. But the fix would trim several feet of land off adjacent parcels, most of which are residential.
  • Replace the Kentucky Avenue bridge over State Ditch near South Lyons Avenue for one with a wider opening ($3.3 million). Massonne said the opening is narrower than a railroad bridge upstream, so it pinches the flow, limiting how much water can flow through and how quickly. The Indiana Department of Transportation built the current bridge not long ago, so Indianapolis would have to foot the bill to swap it out.
  • Remove the log jams clogging area waterways ($790,000) and stabilize waterway banks ($150,000). This work would help water flow downstream instead of trapping it in place, and slow erosion in the banks that keep water in. All of the properties along neighborhood waterways are privately owned, according to DPW, so the agency would establish easements along the State Ditch corridor to be able to remove the jams and do stabilization work.

DPW has also set aside $2 million for acquiring property, right-of-way and perpetual easements, as well as $2.2 million for engineering, permits, surveying and construction contingencies.

So where’s the money coming from? In 2018, Indiana legislators established the ability to create flood control districts. They work similarly to tax increment financing districts (TIFs).

Incremental increases in property value in the district—thus leading to increased tax revenue—will be used to pay for the improvements themselves. The expected cost is more than DPW’s stormwater fund alone would be able to support, according to the agency.

But unlike TIFs, which are statutorily limited to 25-year lives, flood control districts stay for 75 years. That means built-in long-term maintenance. But it also means that a significant portion of property owners’ taxes will be earmarked, year after year, for the new infrastructure. As property values and taxes rise above baseline numbers, that new revenue will get put into the district’s fund.

Not everyone’s convinced it’s a good idea.

“A TIF is no deal,” said one resident, who identified himself as John, at a public meeting in September. “Why can’t we finance this some other way? … We’re stealing future tax dollars.”

“I’ve lived here for 28 years, and they’ve never cared about us,” said another, referring to city officials.

DPW says the measures could save neighborhood property owners a collective $400,000 in flood insurance each year. People buying houses in a floodplain must buy the insurance to be able to get a federally backed mortgage, but it isn’t cheap. Being in a flood zone also limits the improvements residents can make to their own houses.

The floodplain has been among constituents’ major concerns for years, said state Rep. Justin Moed, as its boundaries have continued to expand.

“In the long term, this tool will be pretty transformative for a neighborhood that has sort of been at the mercy of this water,” Moed, whose district includes Mars Hill, told board members Wednesday. “I think we’re going to provide this city with an opportunity to take things back.”

Although DPW’s project list would leave nearly 1,600 parcels in the 100-year flood zone—for severe storms with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year—water levels during those floods would drop an estimated 1.5 feet.

For storms with a 10% chance of occurring–i.e., the 10-year floodplain–water would drop an estimated half-foot.

“While some of those parcels may not be removed from that special flood hazard area completely, what we will likely be doing is preventing flooding that would otherwise flood across the floor of someone’s home,” Massonne said. Instead, the water could be “in their yard, maybe lapping at their foundation block instead.”

Indianapolis’ Metropolitan Development Commission will be the next to consider the proposal, in November, before introduction to the City-County Council in December. Councilors would vote in January, and if it’s a yes, the district could land final MDC approval that month or in February, according to Massonne.

In the meantime, Indianapolis will embark on its next round of mail notifications for Mars Hills property owners about the spate of public hearings planned for the project: at the November commission meeting, at a December Public Works Committee meeting, potentially at a January Metropolitan and Economic Development Committee meeting and at a final commission meeting in January or February. DPW has already hosted two public open houses this year.

Mars Hill’s flood control district would be Indianapolis’ third, behind one for Rocky Ripple and another for the Broad Ripple, Warfleigh and Butler-Tarkington neighborhoods.

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5 thoughts on “City planning $10.1M initiative in Mars Hill to remove 650 parcels from flood zone

  1. “People buying houses in a floodplain must buy the insurance to be able to get a federally backed mortgage, but it isn’t cheap. Being in a flood zone also limits the improvements residents can make to their own houses.” But if you do not have a mortgage on the property, or pay all cash for the property, or have a private money loan for the purchase, flood insurance is not required. Also the “50% Rule” on making improvements to a property in a flood zone is a regulation of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) that prohibits improvements to a structure exceeding 50% of its market value unless the entire structure is brought into full compliance with current flood regulations. Again, if you own the property outright this rule also does not apply.

    1. Brent – Can you clarify where it is legally stated that if someone owns the property outright, the 50% rule does not apply? In y experience, the flood review department at Indianapolis Housing and Neighborhood Development enforces this 50% rule whether the property is fully owned or not. Thanks

    2. Craig M, the NFIP is administered by FEMA but flood insurance is typically only a requirement of secured mortgages. It appears that FEMA now requires local jurisdictions to enforce the 50% rule as a condition to make flood insurance available to property owners in that jurisdiction regardless of an individual’s ownership status. Some 22,000 townships, villages, towns, and cities have agreed to FEMA requirement which in effect holds all property owners hostage. But I cannot find any legislative language that supports FEMA’s blanket “tit-for-tat” requirement.

  2. INDOT recently completed a bride but did not complete a comprehensive or apparently, a de minimis analysis of stormwater impacts die to flow restrictions for a known floodplain.

    Did INDOT complete a neighborhood impact analysis per any type of environmental review requirement. Or must one assume the INDOT proceeded per the lowest common denominator approach wherein the justification is based on not making the [periodic flooding] situation any worse that typically experienced.

    Yet, INDOT and city reviewers as well allowed the bridge replacement to proceed knowing the potential long-term impacts to trsidents and properties. Might this have occurred adjacent to a more economically affuent neighborhood?

    Now the much needed fix will be more costly for everyone due to a non-coordinated, fractured and short-sighted planning, design, and approval process.

    1. The bridge was built by INDOT when this segment of Kentucky Avenue was State Road 67 and there was less development in the area. In the 1990s, then Mayor Goldsmith short sightedly accepted all of the state roads inside of 465 as local roads without any additional funding to maintain or improve them.