The Floodway Buyout Program and a Call to Action

February 2, 2016 by CRC Action Group in News

The Flood-Way Buyout Program, a Guest Post, Some Thoughts on Risk and a CALL TO ACTION


The following post is quite lengthy but important, as it leads to CRCAG’s specific request of this Government to unwind the fundamentally flawed and destructive “floodway buyout policy” established by the Progressive Conservatives in their first reaction following the 2013 flood. Please read all the way through and help us by acting on the Call to Action below.


On Friday night Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee held an open house forum to garner input as to how to manage the empty lots that will remain once the 17 homes now owned by the Province are demolished, expected by the end of summer.  As you know, we advocated that Calgary should be exempted from this policy just like the downtowns of Drumheller and Fort McMurray, and for the same reasons. See our views at the time, here. Unfortunately, we were ignored by our then‑elected officials.


So, firstly, we wish to acknowledge and thank Minister Larivee for setting up this meeting, and Mayor Nenshi, MLA Greg Clark, MP Kent Hehr and Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra for attending and speaking to us.


The feedback Minister Larivee received regarding empty lot management was certainly constructive and reasonably consistent, in our view. Neighbours tend to favour no permanent structures and a blending in with surrounding homes through modest landscaping, perhaps even allowing adjacent homeowners to take on simple maintenance in exchange for use, such that it appears to be an extension of their private property and not public space that invites the general public’s uncontrolled access. CRCAG supports this approach for three critical reasons:


  • The zoning of these lots must be respected, and they are zoned R1 with public parks in these neighbourhoods already planned, in place, managed and used. Using these newly empty lots as public spaces illegally rewrites the zoning for the neighbourhood.
  • The longer these lots are seen to be non-private lands, the louder will grow the chorus of voices, with no real interest in these neighbourhoods, to keep them in the “public domain”. These neighbourhoods don’t need more battles.
  • The Government has said it is considering putting these lands back in the hands of private homeowners in the future, as we have consistently advocated. See here. To deal with these lands in anything other than a temporary and restorable manner sends dangerously mixed signals to all concerned.


While Minister Larivee wished to discuss how to manage these lots post-demolition, it was clear that this issue, while important, was well down the list of priorities for those in attendance. Two much greater concerns were raised, and the very first question posed to the Minister concerned the status of the Springbank Off-Stream Reservoir Project, a topic that was revisited throughout the evening as a fundamental lynchpin to the question of the future of these lots. The second very clear concern pertained to the third bullet above: putting these lots back in private hands as soon as possible to maintain the residential integrity of these important inner city neighbourhoods, recoup ill-spent taxpayer money, and thwart their gradual erosion through policy.


After acknowledging how wrongheaded the buy-out policy was, Minister Larivee disappointingly hedged in her response to this second concern, saying she “hoped” that these lots would be sold back to the public market. In response, we stated that the tremendous destruction of the buy-out policy was realized in a two-step process. First, take the damaged homes down, which this Government is now doing (for reasons that we, in the main, understand and support). And second, hold these lots out of private homeowner hands for no purpose other than as a graphic reminder to the world of an event that will have by then been effectively mitigated with proper upstream infrastructure, thus unnecessarily undermining property values and changing how these neighbourhoods were built over generations. So we pointed out the profound irony that, if these lots are not eventually sold back to the public, this New Democratic Government will itself fully effect the worst outcome to a Progressive Conservative policy that they and everyone considers abhorrent.


Asked what new considerations may have arisen prompting her tentative language, Minister Larivee spoke of a risk assessment to be done following the construction of the Springbank Project and the completion of the new flood-mapping exercise now underway (and into which we’ve tried to engage). We provide a few thoughts on that further below.


Following Friday’s meeting, Steve Allan sent a terrific email to Minister Larivee, other elected officials, and CRCAG. With his gracious permission we provide his message below. It is absolutely spot on in our view.


Dear Minister


I attended the Information Session last night but had to leave at 8:15, without having had an opportunity to speak. 


I have lived in Roxboro my entire life. I grew up on 4th St, but have lived on my current lot on 2nd Street for over 37 years. In all the years I have lived in the neighbourhood, I have only experienced two floods: 2005, which resulted in a delayed sewer back up in our basement, and 2013. The 2013 flood was devastating. The  foundation of the house was compromised and because of the extent of the damage, the only rational choice we had was to demolish our home and rebuild. 


We designed the new house to be flood resistant. We poured a brand new foundation, like a regular house, but it is filled with soil and gravel under a cement slab, creating a four foot heated crawl space. We had seven feet of water in our basement but did not have main floor damage. Despite that, we built the foundation so the house would sit a foot higher than our previous home. The result is that it is two feet higher than required for a building permit. 


Since there is no basement, there are no windows in the foundation and it is sealed so it is impervious to water. 


Our heating, electrical, plumbing, laundry room etc are all located on the main floor, well above the 2013 flood line. 


Clearly, there are no guarantees our property will not suffer damage if there is another flood prior to upstream mitigation being in place, but we feel as confident as can be, that we have built in such a way as to minimize any consequences of another flood event. 


By rebuilding on our lot, we have made a long term commitment to our community and intend to spend the rest of our lives in our new home. We moved into our new house in November 2014 and we are delighted to be back in our neighbourhood. 


I have however, been deeply disturbed about all the policies surrounding the houses that are slated for demolition. We are all agreed that the buy out policy was badly flawed but the situation has been exacerbated by continued bureaucratic and political delays and indecision. 


It is been over two and a half years since the flood. If action had been taken on a more urgent basis with some of these properties they could have been salvaged. The home at the end of our street was brand new and had never been lived in. We understand the owner was intending to move in around the time of the flood. The Province paid a reported $6.8 million for this house. To me, the fact it is slated for destruction is a prime example of extreme government waste. 


Although I think the destruction of some of these houses could have been avoided, I accept that demolition may be the most prudent course given the passage of time. However, the next error in the political and bureaucratic decisions surrounding these properties is the uncertainty in the timing of placing the lots back on the market, or in fact, whether they will ever be placed back on the market! 


The meeting last night began with the foundation that the government will not consider placing these properties on the market until upstream mitigation is completed, due to concerns about liability. There was no opportunity to challenge that premise and no information was provided to explain why this is such a significant concern for the government. 


I spent my career as a Chartered Accountant with a specialty in insolvency and bankruptcy. I sold a myriad of assets throughout my career on an “as is where is” basis. I simply don’t understand why these lots can’t be sold with a clear waiver acknowledging that the property owner accepts the risks of the location of the lot and agrees to build a home in accordance with all the requirements for building on the river. You could also place something on title to clarify their rights and obligations. They too can build a home like mine that is flood resistant.  


We are all aware that the flood maps that were used to determine whether a home was in the flood way and thus eligible to participate in the buy out option, were dated and may well have been inaccurate. It became like a lottery and in fact, many of us on the flood fringe incurred damages worse than those suffered by homes on the flood way.


The point was also made last night that those who were eligible to participate in the buy out, but decided to stay in their homes, have been placed in an impossible position. How can they possibly sell their homes now, in light of the position taken by the Province? Their homes have been completely devalued by this decision, and I do not believe there was any disclosure to them at the time, of the extent of the risk they were taking.  They believed their only risk was that they would not be eligible to participate in a DRP program in the event of another flood.


Many made the point last night that they wanted the lots placed on the market as that would help the market value of their own homes recover. I suppose there is some validity to that argument, especially for those who are in the flood way. However, I am anxious to see those lots placed on the market as soon as they are demolished, so that we can continue the recovery of our community. We already have a number of vacant lots and abandoned homes in the community. As you can well appreciate that detracts from the sense of community that attracted us in the first place and led people such as me to invest in a new home so we could continue to enjoy life in this wonderful place. Vacant lots mean no neighbours; no children playing, no gardens being tended. They are just empty places. The vibrancy of the neighbourhood suffers from these gaps and holes along the street. 


It was also made clear last night that people don’t want the lots available for public use. I agree with that. There were also concerns raised re security and aesthetics. These are important concerns. The best and most reasonable solution to this challenge is to market these properties as soon as they are demolished. And on that point, it was also noted last night that the demolition would not be completed until September. That should be expedited. 


If these properties are not marketed until the mitigation is complete, we could have empty lots for five to seven years….and that may be optimistic. It was disappointing that there was no information available as to the status or timing of the Springbank project. And also very concerning that the best that could be offered was a “hope” that the properties would be placed on the market when mitigation is complete. We need certainty. And we need to be able to continue our recovery as a community and have these properties restored to residential use immediately.


Others have suggested that maybe the Province should wait until the market recovers before selling the lots. To try to time the market would also be a mistake, and we should not continue to compound mistakes that have been made with respect to these properties from day one. If money is lost on these properties that can be blamed  on a badly flawed policy of the previous government. By placing the properties on the market as soon as possible (after demolition) your government will be seen to have made the best of a bad situation. But anger over delays in dealing with these matters will be directed at your government. The angst of our community residents will only continue to increase every time they pass by these empty lots in the years ahead ……and five to seven years before we can welcome new neighbours into our community is far too long. 


Many times in my career, I challenged legal opinions that were provided on various matters and we found ways to solve problems and get things done to benefit stakeholders by being creative and decisive. 


I urge you to reconsider your decision and to place these lots on the market during the course of 2016. 


Thank you for your attention to this, and thank you for making yourself available to meet with us last night. I know it is not easy to deal with challenging situations like this but you are indeed well equipped to understand and deal with the issues, given your experiences in Slave Lake.


Best regards,


Steve Allan


And now, because Minister Larivee raised the issue, let’s talk a bit about the risk of living not just in our neighbourhoods, but in Calgary (after all, a third of the downtown, including the entirety of the quickly developing East Village, was under water).


Minister Larivee advised that the decision to demolish rather than resell the 17 homes in Calgary was because of the ongoing safety hazard and liability they currently pose. While we don’t know the precise condition of each home, the Government has assessed the liability risk of keeping these homes standing and of selling them to a willing buyer, to be too great. Minister Larivee referred to legal advice that concluded that the Province’s risk exposure to that buyer was too great, should another flood occur. Of course, we don’t have access to these opinions and haven’t commissioned our own, but insofar as this concern relates to empty and compromised homes on the river, we accept both the safety concerns and that the current sale value may not be worth the risk exposure to the Province.


But as mentioned above, Minister Larivee’s statement that she “hopes” these lots will eventually be sold in the future, is very troubling. When pressed on this, she said she’s just not able to guarantee this result, as it’s dependant on upstream mitigation occurring, how the revised flood mapping effort turns out, and the Government’s assessment of risk outcomes. This suggests that there are contingencies to these activities that are somehow beyond the Government’s own control, which is simply not the case. The Government has all legal tools needed to effect the Springbank Project if it indeed has the political will to do so, as it has publicly stated (with the only contingency being the environmental regulatory review process). The flood mapping will be the flood mapping, but it will be the Government’s own policy choices overlaid on that that could impose residential and commercial development restrictions that unnecessarily compromise these areas (similar to the City’s proposed Land Use Bylaw changes we were forced to fight (yet another battle)). And the Government’s decision to act in the face of any risk is, ultimately, a choice.


Like Steve Allan, many people at the meeting wished to see these lots sold to the public as soon as the homes come down, and CRCAG sees no reason for this not to occur. The risk the Government faces at this time is no greater and no worse than any homeowner or business in Calgary. It is simply a matter of risk tolerance, as it is for so many daily decisions one makes in life. In the Government’s case, legal liability waivers and exclusions documentation with a willing and informed buyer is available to it in a way not available to a home or business owner, and at law (with rare exceptions), these are typically legally enforceable. Further, many stakeholders have assessed current flood risk, where no upstream mitigation exists, and have acted in the face of it. Homes have been sold and bought and in many cases rebuilt following the City’s guidelines for doing so, based on the City’s own assessment of risks and impacts of mitigation building standards. This applies to public and commercial developments as well, such as the new Centennial Library and National Music Centre, the City’s aggressive development of the East Village and the downtown generally, and its considerations for the emerging West Village. In fact, well more than half of the floodway homeowners in Calgary, who were given every incentive to take the Government’s offer to sell and the taxpayers’ money to do so, assessed their risk and chose to stay put. So CRCAG views the Government’s position on this to be unreasonably risk adverse and very much the outlier.


But much more troubling is Minister Larivee’s suggestion that the Government may possibly conclude that, even when the Springbank Project is operational (and berms along the Elbow River are in place, as we learned for the first time is being considered by the City), it may judge the risk to still be too great for it to be a seller to an informed (and well papered) buyer. Really? If the Government ever actually took that position, how could it, as the steward of overall public safety, allow anyone to live and work in an environment of such unmitigable risk? If its tolerance for risk is so low at that time, why bother with upstream mitigation at all? Why not simply admit now that no solution could meet its standards for risk, and offer the same buy-out option the prior Government offered, to every home and business that was touched by water in this City (or more properly, formally and properly expropriate all this land pursuant to law rather than a policy that leveraged a natural disaster to achieve a nefarious outcome). And why stop there…why not buy-out or expropriate every home and business touched by water in previous historically measured floods in Calgary, at 30% worse than 2013? Of course, that’s the entirety of the downtown of Calgary (and ironically, is the risk facing downtown Drumheller and Fort McMurray, but for their mitigation infrastructure, that all Governments including this one have consciously exempted from the risk calculus). These are all choices after all, as ridiculous as they are. Or perhaps the Government should build additional upstream mitigation that achieves whatever it considers to be a sufficiently tolerable risk in order for it to sell these lots back to a private homeowner.


At some point, risk and life have to find a balance. Certainly, once the Springbank Project is operational, the Province retaining ownership of these lots would be simply unnecessary, and quite illogical. As we say above, we think this balance is struck well beforehand and as soon as these houses are demolished. Even raising the spectre that such a balance cannot be found is why the buy-out policy was flawed in its conception, at least for Calgary. So why not take that possibility off the table right now? Why hedge on this point?


Let’s hope that the driver to the Minister’s tentative language isn’t actually what Counsellor Carra characterized as those voices in some halls of power that would like to see the gradual undoing of generations of “ill-considered” development near rivers, through perverse policies that destroy the wealth and integrity (and the tax base) of an inner City. Strange that somehow that perception only ever seems to pertain to residences and not to office towers.


So here is CRCAG’s specific request to this Government: Put the vacant lots created by the demolition of these 17 homes back onto the market for sale into private hands, starting this year. To do so would be the only graphic confirmation that you consider the buy-out policy first started by your predecessors to have been the tremendous error that it truly is, and that you actually intend to complete the Springbank Project to keep this City safe, as promised. 


And here’s our CALL TO ACTION request of our Members:

  • If you generally agree with the comments above, please forward the link to this post to Minister Larivee, our Mayor and our other elected officials identified below. Please add your own thoughts of course. And please copy us at


  • We will soon issue a CRCAG Survey concerning the options for how to manage the empty floodway buy-out lots, and their ultimate disposition by the Government. Please complete it when it arrives. Results will be submitted to the Government to help its decision making going forward. We can tell you that this feedback will be considered by the Government and is meaningful.


One last comment. CRCAG sees and appreciates the engagement of our New Democrat Government in our collective recovery from the devastating 2013 flood. In our ongoing dealings with the many contacts we’ve made with Administration the last 2.5  years, and our new dealings with our elected Provincial officials, we can tell you that there is a real interest to resolve the many issues facing us, and to walk the talk and get things done. As hard and as frustrating and as long as things have been, this is moving forward.


So, as always, many thanks,


Your CRCAG Team