Wood Buffalo council opts for berms, not buyouts for most flood-affected neighbourhoods

Wood Buffalo council examined different options including buyouts, land swaps, building berms and implementing development limitations in flood zones. 

Fort McMurray council voted to build a berm around Waterways instead of buying out homeowners

Drone shots of the Fort McMurray flooding captured on April 30, 2020. (Submitted by Byron Bourget)

Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) council has opted to build berms instead of buyouts for almost all of the flood-affected neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray. 

In a marathon council meeting that started on Tuesday and continued to Friday, RMWB council debated the fate of six Fort McMurray neighbourhoods affected by the April flooding: Ptarmigan Court, Waterways, Draper, Taiga Nova, downtown and Longboat Landing. 

Different options were examined including buyouts, land swaps, building berms and implementing development limitations in flood zones. 

Residents have been split on buyouts for areas like Waterways, Draper and Ptarmigan Court, with some saying they want out of their homes that have been battered by natural disasters while others want to stay in their areas. 

Fire Chief Jody Butz said building a berm in flood zones can cause people to develop a false sense of security. 

"Even with a berm, the risks of flooding still exist," said Butz. "Over time, that false sense of security may encourage an increase in land use and development in the known flood hazard areas."

On Tuesday, council voted to build the $6.4 million Taiga Nova berm to the one-in-200-year flood level.

On Wednesday, council voted to have one-on-one conversations with residents in Ptarmigan Court to see what people would like to see happen. 

For Ptarmigan Court, administration recommended the municipality offer to buy properties at the 2020 fair market value until May 2021. But Coun. Verna Murphy said she wanted more information before making a decision, and she needed to know how residents felt about buyouts. 

Ptarmigan Court is unique in that administration said there are no options for structural flood mitigation. There are 69 private properties in the area. 

Administration estimates it would cost $21.8 million to buy everyone out.

On Thursday, council passed a motion to continue building the berm around Fort McMurray's downtown to the one-in-200-year flood level, costing about $80.3 million.

Some homeowners wrote and called into the meeting.

Marguerite Watkins said she owns two homes downtown, both of which were damaged during the flood. 

"The government or the municipality needs to step up to the plate," said Watkins. "We need help." 

"Our lives are in total destruction."

Council voted in favour of finishing the flood mitigation around Waterways for $44 million. The motion also directed administration to explore the option of land swaps for homes built below 250 metres. 

"I do want people to stay in this region," said Mayor Don Scott. "I believe buyouts are just a technique of saying goodbye to people."

A grocery store is surrounded by flood water on Franklin Avenue in Fort McMurray on Monday. (Greg Halinda/The Canadian Press)

Murphy is the only councillor who voted against the motion, saying she wanted administration to survey all the homeowners in the area to see what they wanted for their homes and families. 

"We explored land swaps and buyouts for Ptarmigan [Court], but we won't do the same for Waterways," said Murphy.

"I want to keep residents here too, but it just seems like when you don't give people choices, it's just a bit more offensive to me personally." 

Coun. Krista Balsom attempted to bring in the options for buyouts in multiple neighbourhoods, including Draper and Waterways, but was quashed by the other council members. 

"We need to give people the opportunity to move forward with their lives," said Balsom.

Council voted to get feedback from residents in Draper to find out what type of flood mitigation they would prefer. The motion did not include the exploration of buyouts or land swaps. 

For Longboat Landing, Coun. Jane Stroud made a motion for administration to complete the structural flood mitigation project to a one-in-200-year level (250.9m) by Oct. 15, 2021.

The motion also includes limiting development to below 250 metres, and for council to advocate on behalf of Longboat Landing property owners to the province and the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

Administration is due to report back to council within 90 days. The motion passed. 

Administration was also directed to ensure people can weigh in on a pedestrian walkway part of the flood mitigation project for Longboat Landing and that landscape on all municipal property near Longboat Landing adjacent to the river is done, according to the municipality. 

The remainder of the meeting was pushed to Monday.


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