Flood issues block ‘E-25’ owners

FORT COLLINS – A group of property owners seeking to collaborate on development of land that fronts the east side of Interstate 25 in Fort Collins are faced with new floodplain regulations that could stymie their plans.

Group members say engineering studies conducted by the Fort Collins Utilities Department have led to a new federal floodplain designation for about 5,000 acres of land in the Boxelder Creek drainage, despite what they claim are flaws in the underlying data.

But city officials say that the studies completed after the devastating Spring Creek flood in July 1997 show greater dangers from 100-year flood scenarios than had been previously anticipated.

At stake is the development potential for most of the 400 acres of land that the owners hold along two miles of interstate frontage, at a time when regional competition for commercial projects has tilted southward in favor of Loveland, Windsor and Timnath.

“This is just another blow for Fort Collins,´ said David White, a Denver developer who owns 130 acres of the highway frontage. “Now the city will have to deal with a floodplain issue that effectively eliminates any possibilities for economic development there.”

The owners’ group, unofficially known as the E-25 property owners, is now pursuing an appeal process aimed at persuading federal officials that the city’s data is inaccurate. The group met with Federal Emergency Management Agency engineers in March, shortly after the agency issued a new set of flood insurance maps based on the city studies.

Armed with reports from their own engineering consultant, White and other property owners have since filed a request for a variance, a document that FEMA officials call a “conditional letter of map revision.”

How much rain?

Most at issue is the estimate of rainfall that scientists and engineers say would cause serious flooding in the vast Boxelder drainage.

Fort Collins water planning manager Bob Smith, who coordinated the city studies in the wake of the 1997 flood, said data collected from state, local and university sources showed a 100-year thunderstorm – one that has a 100-to-one chance of occurring in any given year – would dump more water in the Boxelder drainage than previously thought.

When the new numbers were plugged into the city’s formula, “in most instances, the peak discharges went up,” Smith said. “As that goes up, the floodplain gets wider.”

But studies conducted by highly regarded Denver-based water engineer Bill Taggart, hired by the E-25 group to analyze the Boxelder flood potential, found errors in the city’s data, according to the owners.

“He came up with a number of major flaws in the city study, one of the biggest being the meteorology – the estimate of the amount of rainfall that goes into the system,´ said Jim Mokler, a broker with Realtec Commercial Real Estate Services Inc.

Most of Mokler’s Interchange Business Park, at the southeast corner of I-25 and Mulberry Street, falls within the draft flood insurance maps that FEMA issued using the city data.

Taggart could not be reached for comment on his analysis. Smith said he was familiar with Taggart’s findings, but stood by the city reports.

“When you have several engineers looking at the same issue, you are going to have differences of opinion,” Smith said.

Timnath’s solution

Taggart’s view is bolstered by the engineer for the town of Timnath, at the lower end of the Boxelder drainage, who has adopted a flood plan based on lower rainfall totals.

“We are not using the Fort Collins rainfall numbers in our evaluation of this,´ said Becky Davidson, who also serves as Timnath’s town administrator. “We believe the rainfall that occurs on the east side of I-25 is lower than their analysis shows.”

Davidson said the town will spend between $4 million and $8 million over the next several years to construct a diversion system that would protect the flat, low-lying town from Boxelder flooding and keep land that could be developed commercially off the FEMA flood maps.

Consultants hired by Fort Collins also say in their review that it would cost about $35 million to eliminate the flood hazard by building storm-water reservoirs, upgrading roads and installing water diversion systems.

Where that money would come from, and when it could be spent, are open questions. Because the Boxelder drainage – totaling 265 square miles- affects multiple cities, towns and utility districts, a regional alliance was formed three years ago to study ways to resolve the flooding issues.

“They’re looking at all sorts of possibilities for funding,” Smith said. “Right now, it’s a whole smorgasbord of options. The questions are, what do you want to build first? Where do you get the most bang for the buck?”

Fort Collins, with a record of success securing federal “pre-disaster mitigation” grants to pay for flood prevention systems, is taking the lead on getting the federal pipeline to flow again.

$15 million fix

Smith said less than half the total expenditure, about $15 million, would pay for storm-water reservoirs between Fort Collins and Wellington, upstream from the I-25 properties, that would likely take them off the new flood insurance maps.

The E-25 owners say they are skeptical the flood project can be financed and question whether it is needed in the first place.

“The alliance is looking at $35 million to solve a problem that I don’t think exists,” Mokler said. “What I’m asking for is the city to step back and say, ‘O.K., let’s reexamine this.'”

White said the E-25 group hopes to hear within the next two weeks whether FEMA officials would consider their request for a map revision that would allow them to take steps toward master-planning their land for commercial development.

“You can’t do any development in that area until a revision is issued,” White said. “The city has said that they are interested in pursuing development in the area, but they’re putting chains on themselves.”