In one sense, government did too little to protect Hacienda Village when it allowed the northeast-side neighborhood to be built in a floodplain more than 50 years ago – a dereliction of duty some residents insist was on display as recently as last week.
But to Jon and Phyllis Rehklau, government did far too much after the swollen Bullarman Ditch sent several inches of water through their home on Cadena Lane early last June, creating an infuriating Catch-22 that requires them to pay a mortgage and taxes on a home they are not allowed to repair and in which they are not allowed to live.
For the Rehklaus, who married 51 years ago and bought their sprawling four-bedroom ranch 13 years ago, the dream of spending their golden years in the house they lovingly and meticulously landscaped apparently ended when several inches of rain sent a cascade of water through their home and down the street – the first time, they and neighbors say, the neighborhood had flooded despite its inclusion on federal floodplain maps.
Whether the flood would have occurred if not for continued development in the area is debatable. Some of the Rehklaus' neighbors insist there's a connection, which is why they unsuccessfully asked City Council last week to deny a proposed $12 million hotel, residential and restaurant project on Wheelock Road. Allen County Surveyor Al Frisinger, however, said it's doubtful construction of Hacienda Village would even be allowed today, given its proximity to the Bullerman Ditch. And City Utilities spokesman Frank Suarez was even more direct: Following heavy rain in a flood zone, overflows “are supposed to happen.”
But such theoretical debates should not obscure the all-too-real nightmare the Rehklaus have faced for the past nine months – a nightmare that shows no sign of ending any time soon.
The war-zone interior of their once-beautiful home only begins to tell the tale. Missing carpet and drywall and a lingering musty smell testify to the flood, and the storage trailers still sitting in the driveway hint at what became of most of their furniture. But even though they had flood insurance, they have not been allowed to rebuild because of a little-known law that prevents them from spending more than half of the home's assessed value on repairs. The lowest repair bid was $73,000, they said, but the home is assessed at about $135,000.
The law is apparently intended to discourage investment in buildings subject to flooding. But in this case, it has had the perverse effect of forcing the Rehklaus to live in an apartment while paying for a house they desperately want to live in – but can't. Nor can they simply walk away, since that would cost them not only their equity but their good credit.
“We loved it here. It just breaks my heart,” Phyllis Rehklau said, struggling to hold back tears.
“We built this place up, and thought we'd live here a long time. Now I guess the best thing to do would be to sell,” Jon added.
A private sale is out of the question, of course, which means the Rehklaus must hope for some government to buy their property, as it is doing with six flood-prone homes on the Fairfield Ditch. A federal grant was sought for that very purpose last year but denied, Frisinger said – leaving the Rehklaus in an expensive and heartbreaking limbo not of their own making.
Hacienda Village Neighborhood Association President Richard Duke, said he and other residents have contacted several agencies hoping to get an answer about whether the neighborhood can expect more floods, and what
will be done to prevent it. Answers have not been forthcoming, he said.
Frisinger, however, said his office will be conducting a study of the Bullerman Ditch to determine whether cleaning or other improvements are required – improvements that could eventually be charged to property owners living along the drain. Hacienda Village's City Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st, who voted for last week's project because he was satisfied it would not exacerbate any flooding problem, said Frisinger and City Utilities officials will also attend the neighborhood's annual meeting in May to address the concerns of residents, most of whom have sustained little to no flood damage to date.
That's a positive – if overdue – step. But it will do nothing to help the Rehklaus. When government denies law-abiding owners the use of their property, compensation is appropriate. To do otherwise may be legal, but it is not moral. Nor is it necessary.
Floods are an act of God over which frail human beings have little control. The bureaucratic limbo in which the Rehklaus have been forced to live for nearly a year, on the other hand, is man-made.
It can and should end the same way, the sooner the better.