By Bob Uphues
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will soon begin designing a floodwall that will extend from Park Place to the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad right of way after the Riverside Board of Trustees voted 5 to 1 to enter into a project partnership agreement with the Corps on Dec. 6.
At the same time, with the same vote, the village board also gave the go ahead to enter into an intergovernmental agreement with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, which has pledged to pay the $2.5 million local share of the project cost.
If the floodwall is built, the Army Corps will pay for 65 percent of the estimated $7.16 million project, which was conceived to protect the area of Riverside near the intersection of Forest and West/Groveland avenues from Des Plaines River flooding.
Trustee Wendell Jisa cast the lone no vote against both agreements, saying the village hadn't exhausted examining other alternatives to the floodwall.
"I think we have to do more homework," Jisa said.
But most trustees felt it was important and necessary to move forward with the project design phase, even if it ends up costing the village money – perhaps as much as $150,000 -- in the event a decision is made to abandon the floodwall.
"I will not hesitate to say no to going forward if, at the end of the 50-percent design phase, that it is not what we want to do," said Trustee Elizabeth Peters. "For me, this contract is not a done deal at all, but I do feel like it is very much worth it to these residents, who very clearly have suffered, to find out if we can help them."
There are aspects of the floodwall project that remain uncertain, which has frustrated residents nearest to the river on West Avenue, who won't know exactly how their properties will be impacted by the floodwall until the 50-percent design phase is complete, probably in late 2019 or early 2020.
At least one resident on Dec. 6 threatened legal action against the village to make sure she is reimbursed appropriately for not just private land that needs to be acquired for the floodwall, but for the noise and disruption that will come with construction, which could last two years.
"I'm telling you right now, you will have a legal fight," said Mary Erangey, who lives on West Avenue in a property that is high enough that it has not experienced the kind of flooding some of her neighbors to the north have endured.
"There will be all manner of disruption to our home," Erangey added. "That is not a bottom line, black-and-white number, but it is very real to us. I want that factored in, and I want reimbursement for that."
Erangey also complained that village officials didn't reach out to homeowners on West Avenue to see if they were on board with a floodwall in the first place.
"I'm not sure any of you even know whether the residents of West [Avenue] wanted this," Erangey said.
Village President Ben Sells responded that the board's job was to consider not just residents on West Avenue but those affected by flooding and the rest of the village. Fire Chief Matthew Buckley presented a series of photos from floods in 1987, 2008 and 2013 to show the impact of past floods, which have grown more frequent in the past decade.
"I take the impact and effect on your property wholeheartedly," said Sells. "But I also live with those photographs. I was here in 2013 after that flood. I was walking up and down the streets, sloshing around, helping people pull their belongings out of their homes.
"I was the one getting hugged by people in tears, because they had lost everything. I care about them, too. So, that is our job, to make that balance."
Riverside resident Steven Campbell criticized the lack of information regarding property acquisition and the village's potential financial exposure for maintenance and future replacement of the floodwall and for any project cost overruns.
"I can't believe it's happening with this level of due diligence," Campbell said.
But Trustee Scott Lumsden, an architecture and construction management professional who is the village board's expert on infrastructure issues, said beginning the design process was the only way to begin answering some of those questions.
"At that point [when design has been completed] we'll have a lot more information to make a good decision on whether or not to go forward," Lumsden said. "And we'll get good cost estimates from [the Army Corps] based on real drawings."
At that time, Lumsden added, residents on West Avenue would have a real idea of the impact to their properties. That process, with interaction with the public as part of it, is key, he said.
"That's what's really going to educate all of us," Lumsden said.
The design phase is expected to begin around February 2019, after the MWRD's board votes to ratify the intergovernmental agreement with Riverside.