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Largo may buy up flood prone homes

Razing the homes is cheaper than fixing the flood causes, and will help insurance rates.

By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2002

Razing the homes is cheaper than fixing the flood causes, and will help insurance rates.

LARGO -- Rain is not welcome at James Lewis' home.

Drainage problems have forced him to complain to city officials more than a dozen times after he watched water roll down his driveway, through his garage, into his kitchen and living room. In the spring and summer the problem is so bad, he lines his front yard with sandbags.

"I have to leave it up during the rainy season because I've got to work," said Lewis, who has been living in the home for more than 40 years.

Largo administrators are now poised to buy the low-lying, two-bedroom home from Lewis and put an end to the calls and frustration.

A proposed policy could help the city buy Lewis' property and save Largo homeowners 5 percent on their flood insurance, which when combined amounts to about $125,000 a year.

"Sometimes it is more economical to buy the property than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a drainage project to protect one piece of property," said Chris A. Kubala, Largo's director of public works.

That's fine with Lewis as long as the price is right.

The city has estimated his home's value at $48,400, or about half of what Lewis thinks it's worth. "I don't think they are going to want to offer me a fair price," he said.

Lewis' home is one of 11 that are affecting the city's insurance rates. The homes have been flooded at least two times in 10 years, and the owners have filed claims of a $1,000 or more with their flood insurance companies. As a result, they have been placed on a repetitive loss list.

The more houses on the list in a community, the lower a community flood grade. The lower the grade, the higher the flood insurance. Largo has a C.

Flooding also affects a city's flood rating. Largo's is a 7, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the best. Only 16 of 196 communities in the state have the same rating, according to Largo administrators.

Eight of the 11 homes under consideration for city purchase are near McKay Creek. But the city won't decide what to do with them until after it determines whether $2.7-million in improvements to the creek will solve flooding problems on Overbrook, Crescent and Gatewood drives.

For now, the city is focused on boosting its rating and grade by removing at least two homes from the repetitive loss list, either by making drainage improvements or buying the properties and clearing the land.

But it's unclear whether the project will get under way because city administrators can point to several areas where trouble could arise and halt plans.

For starters, the city doesn't know whether it will receive a $75,000 grant it needs to finance the program or whether anyone will be willing to sell their property, said Erik Bredfeldt, Largo's assistant director of community development.

If the project moves forward, though, the benefits will be passed on to the city's residents.

"If we're under 10, the flood insurance rates for all of our residents (will be) less," Kubala said.

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