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SF may offer to buy homes from owners impacted by flooding

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There are certain areas in The City that are hit particularly hard during heavy rains that result in flooding and property damage. The City is exploring ways to solve the problem. (Gabrielle Lurie/2015 Special to S.F. Examiner)
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An ongoing dispute between San Francisco and owners of homes and businesses that flood in heavy rains has escalated to the point where The City may even offer to buy their properties.

Members of the Board of Supervisors who represent the areas most impacted by intense periods of rains — an estimated 1 percent of residents are in areas of flood risk — waded into the flooding issue Wednesday in a nearly two-hour hearing called by Supervisor Norman Yee before the board’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.

The hearing comes as The City has paid out millions of dollars in property damage claims resulting from the flooding, when the storm water infrastructure fails to handle downpours in areas like Mission Terrace at the Cayuga Avenue cul-de-sac, Wawona Street and 15th Avenue, and 17th and Folsom streets. It also comes as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is vowing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years to improve the most impacted low-lying areas.

Harlan Kelly, executive director of the SFPUC, told the board committee that his agency is examining whether to voluntary purchase the properties of those owners who simply are sick of dealing with the flooding and want out.

Kelly said the SFPUC will study similar buyout programs in other cities as well as discuss with the City Attorney’s Office the agency’s use of ratepayer revenue under confines of Proposition 218 for such purchases. The SFPUC relies on sewer rates paid by homeowners and businesses for the revenue stream to invest in the stormwater and sewage collection system.

Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, however, expressed concern that those who decide to sell wouldn’t be able to remain in San Francisco and encouraged Kelly to offer compensation beyond market value. The median price of homes currently listed in San Francisco is nearly $1.2 million, according to real estate website Zillow.

“I would hope that you would be looking beyond just what the value of the property is and actually what it would take for someone to maintain … to still be in The City,” Sheehy said. He said there is “probably a delta” for an equivalent home elsewhere in The City not prone to floods.

“It is really challenging to buy a home in San Francisco,” Kelly said, before promising to explore adding the “delta” compensation.

The agency is also examining ways to elevate homes and businesses to keep them from flooding.

Those are steps being taken outside of the major capital investments. The City has established a standard to have a collection system that wouldn’t flood during conditions of what’s known as a five-year storm, defined as 1.3 inches of rainfall in three hours. It is the same engineering standard in other major cities like Seattle, Chicago and New York, according to SFPUC project manager Stefani Harrison.

To improve the system to handle a more intense 100-year storm would cost $15 billion.

“The bottom line is to get The City up to our 5-year storm level of protection, we are already looking at spending $2.3 billion,” Harrison said. She added that “if we invest that $15 billion, then we would have much more flood protection for larger storms. But in 2004, we had a 200-year storm — there is always going to be a bigger storm.”

Those impacted by the flooding argued The City is not doing enough.

Victoria Sanchez, a resident at the Cayuga Avenue cul-de-sac in the Mission Terrace neighborhood, said, “I want to tell you I’ve been through hell.”

“All the time I get flooded it’s the same thing. What do they do? Give me sandbags. That’s not going to help. I’m tired,” Sanchez said. “Right now my house still smells like mold. I have a grandson that has asthma. I am sick and tired.”

Yee vowed to continue to hold hearings on the issue, with the next one expected between July and September. “I have felt their frustration,” Yee said of the impacted homeowners.

The SFPUC is working on a long-term system collection plan, including not only flooding issues, but also looking at aging, climate change, seismic reliability and rates of service. The capital plan is expected in July.

“If we had unlimited money we can solve this problem. But we have folks that have limited funds. The hard part is the balance,” Kelly said. “That’s where we are. Where is the balance?”

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