The lack of federal funding, the need to draft a new
environmental document, and the allocation of reserves might buy
some more time for flood control officials and the owner of the
Oakwood School campus to negotiate a fair price on a property
The lack of federal funding, the need to draft a new environmental document, and the allocation of reserves might buy some more time for flood control officials and the owner of the Oakwood School campus to negotiate a fair price on a property purchase.
The property behind the school’s campus on John Wilson Way is needed in order to start, and finish, a key stretch of the Upper Llagas Creek Flood Protection project, which would mostly eliminate the threat of flooding during heavy rains in Morgan Hill.
Although the Santa Clara Valley Water District, one of the project’s local sponsors, won’t be able to finish that part of the project before 2015, land owned by the Oakwood School is the last of 30 properties needed in order to start construction, according to Senior Project Manager Bal Ganjoo of the water district.
In fact, the water district is currently in the process of hiring a consultant to begin designing the project. They will also spend the next few months completing an environmental impact study for the one-mile channel which is proposed to run from just south of Edmundson Avenue to just north of California Avenue. The channel will run to the west of and parallel to Monterey Road.
And while the water district has made two offers for Oakwood’s property that were rejected, it could be more than a year before they go back to the negotiating table.
Ted Helvey, property owner and executive director of the Oakwood School, said he is willing to sell the property to the water district, but he can’t afford to accept the agency’s previous offers, which fell far short of the land’s appraised value.
“I am eager to sell that property, and I don’t know if there’s anyone more excited to see the (Llagas Creek) bypass channel built than we are,” Helvey said. He noted that parts of the private school’s campus flood after heavy rains, and the project would eliminate that problem.
The water district made its first offer for the 1.13-acre parcel in 2005, for $11,000. Helvey rejected that offer, as he did another offer to buy the land for $50,000 two years later.
The appraised value, as of Dec. 2008 according to Helvey’s bank, is about $321,000, he said. And no matter what price he ends up getting, Helvey will have to give most of it to the bank, which holds the property as collateral on a loan and would have to approve any purchase. So it would cost him to sell it for less than the current appraised value.
Knowing that the property which is adjacent to the school would eventually be needed for the project, and at the request of the water district, in 1999 Helvey dug a detention pond there to contain runoff from Oakwood’s developed campus. Water district negotiators told him the detention pond lowered the property’s value, Helvey said.
“We’ve constructed the only part of the bypass channel that exists, and they said because of the detention pond, it’s no longer worth as much,” Helvey said.
The water district will make another offer for the property “in the next few years” as the design and environmental studies proceed, water district spokeswoman Susan Siravo said.
The Upper Llagas Creek Flood Protection project has been in pre-design stages since the 1950s. The water district has purchased about half the 250 “partial takes” of private properties along the creek, from Masten Avenue in San Martin to Wright Avenue in north Morgan Hill, that are needed for the project, Ganjoo said.
Since the 1970s, the agency has spent about $13 million on those properties. The project would widen and deepen the creek for about 12.5 miles north of Masten Avenue, allowing the channel to contain high volumes of water that might otherwise spill into Morgan Hill’s downtown.
Water district and city of Morgan Hill officials have said the project would prevent the kind of flooding that occurred Oct. 13, 2009, when the season’s first storm inundated downtown in about three feet of water and caused about $140,000 in public property damage.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the lead sponsor on the $130-million project, and is responsible for most of the funding and construction. Frustrated by the lack of money available at the federal level, earlier this month the water district board of directors approved $10 million to be allocated from its reserves to complete property acquisitions and design, and start digging.
And last year the water district and local co-sponsor the city of Morgan Hill agreed to share about $10 million worth of design costs.
“The continued lack of federal funding is what’s holding up the project,” Ganjoo said.
Two of seven segments are first in line to be funded by the newly allocated reserves. One, known as “Reach 4,” is the southernmost stretch of the project. The water district still has to buy about 30 more properties along that segment of the creek in order to begin construction, Ganjoo said.
The other is that which is proposed to go through Oakwood’s property. Known as “Reach 7a,” that part of the flood protection project is unique because it won’t follow the existing creek. Rather, it will dig up a channel to bypass West Little Llagas Creek, from just south of Edmundson Avenue to just north of California Avenue.
In negotiating property purchases along the project, the water district hires an independent appraiser to assess the value, then makes an offer, Ganjoo said. He said the inability to come to such an agreement on the Oakwood property is “an extreme case,” and other owners so far have been more willing to sell.
“Many times these creek properties are not much use for people, so we don’t generally have any issues,” Ganjoo said. He added that the Corps insists on having full ownership, rather than an easement, so that unrestricted access for future maintenance or repair is available.
The water district has the authority to take property through eminent domain for public projects such as the Upper Llagas Creek widening. But Ganjoo said that would be a “last resort” that the agency has rarely used and prefers not to use.
“We believe in being good neighbors,” Ganjoo said. “Most of our acquisitions are done through the normal process.”