‘This isn’t fair’: Heartbroken residents in Alberta community forced out of flood-prone neighbourhood

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Watch: Emotions are at an all-time high for homeowners in a small community in Drumheller. The residents living along the Red Deer River have to vacate in just over two years. As Jill Croteau reports, they live in a floodway, but feel the deal they're being offered is far from fair – Jan 18, 2022

It’s a picturesque little community nestled between the hoodoos and the Red Deer River.

For nearly a decade, Penny Head has lived on a riverside property in the community of Lehigh. But it’s in a floodway, and Drumheller town officials say she and 18 other property owners have to vacate.

“All our hopes and dreams are here, we have beautiful memories. It’s very painful.”

Penny Head’s home. Loren Andreae/Global News

“On Jan. 6, the town very coldly told us we had to leave,” Head said. “They decided in their wisdom, Lehigh isn’t safe for us to live in anymore, yet people have been living here for the last 80 odd years.”

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Head admits her home has flooded before — twice — but has since invested money to protect it from happening again.

“We did our own mitigation so it would never ever be as bad as last time. Our house has been engineered to the 110-year flood level which is the same as the highway,” Head said.

The Town of Drumheller received $55 million from the federal and provincial governments to address flood mitigation. Some money has been allotted for berms and dykes in parts of the town and buyouts for homes in other neighbourhoods.

Darryl Drohomerski, the Town of Drumheller’s chief administrative officer, said they looked at other options for Lehigh and none are reasonable.

Darryl Drohomerski, Town of Drumheller’s CAO. Jill Croteau/Global News

“We just finished a study to look at alternatives other than simply buyouts. We looked at dredging the river and moving the river over, away from Lehigh, but that’s a short-term solution,” Drohomerski said.

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“We looked at raising properties up and on stilts and there’s no funding to be able to do that.

“We have to protect all of Drumheller and we have to be able to help people relocate so it doesn’t take resources and time away from other areas of Drumheller that aren’t in the floodway.

Drohomerski said two property owners have accepted their offer.

“The province has a formula that says it’s the assessed property value but we negotiated as part of our agreement to use appraised values,” Drohomerski said. “That’s what you and I would pay for a house if we were purchasing it.

“Those 19 properties are about $1.5 million to $2 million in value. Total,” Drohomerski said.

Read more: Small Alberta towns deal with flooding after weekend storms, Exshaw Creek project questioned

Property owner Dawn James doesn’t believe they’re getting reasonable offers to replace what they have.

“We wanted to build and retire here,” James said.

She believes they should have the right to stay.

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“They think they’re giving you a fair deal, but market value is only fair if you want to sell your house not if they’re coming to take it from you,” James said.

Dawn James on her Lehigh property. Jill Croteau/Global News

James said the home had to be demolished following the 2005 flood.

“Our house sat lower and we took on so much water it was wet from floor to ceiling,” James said.

Residents said there was no consultation.

“They say are trying to save us from ourselves and they’ve deemed it unsafe without speaking one word to anybody,” James said.

She said town officials were absent from that initial meeting.

“An entire community just got told they’re going to be bought out and torn down by 2024 and nobody from council or the mayor thought that was an important meeting they should show up to?” James said.

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Read more: ‘High River will never flood again’: Construction underway on new floodgate in Alberta town

In a statement, town officials said: “The meeting was a technical meeting with landowners of Lehigh. The community of Lehigh’s well-being is important to the mayor and council and they’re working hard to find a resolution for everyone.”

But James said there has been a lack of transparency.

“I don’t know why they would want to take out an entire community, unless they have plans and once they expropriate they’re able to rezone or change land use bylaw to their needs, but you can’t get an answer,” James said.

The province requires anything deemed a floodway to become an environmental reserve.

“The province says you need to construct berms to an elevation equivalent to a flow rate of 1,850 cubic metres a second; Lehigh floods at 800 cubic metres a second,” Drohomerski said. “Nothing will be built there in the future.”

April De Smet and her husband Dave are raising their two sons on their 15-acre property. They also developed on the lot to include a garage for car restoration. They don’t believe they’ll ever find anything comparable.

April and Dave De Smet. Jill Croteau/Global News

“We have 15 years of planting our roots here,” De Smet said. “We have to tell our kids and sell everything. Where are we going to go?”

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They don’t understand why they have to leave, their home has never flooded.

The De Smets in their Lehigh, Alta., garage. Jill Croteau/Global News

“We’ve never had water come to our house,” De Smet said. “I don’t understand when they say they’ve done a feasibility study, but they’ve never soil sampled our land. We allowed them access, nobody ever came to touch the soil here.”

Some residents said they would accept the liability to stay, even if it flooded again. But according to town officials, that can’t happen.

“The province made a change last year — it’s called a one and done. It has to be for a one-in-100-year flood event. You’re allowed one claim up to $500,000 then a caveat gets placed on the title of the property and you or successive owners can never claim again,” Drohomerski said.

“It renders the property worthless so here’s an opportunity for us to help residents move to somewhere else.”

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Another layer of the resident’s frustration is that they said they feel bullied by the town officials.

One of their neighbours was charged by RCMP following allegations he made threats to the town’s CAO during the January meeting.

“John Carls is an 83-year-old gentleman. When we were told we are losing our homes, he lost his temper. We were all feeling that way,” Head said. “But my God, what is an 83-year-old man going to do? He’s now been charged and he has to go to court in February — he’s been fingerprinted.”

Head has launched a gofundme to help with potential legal costs.

The Drumheller Resiliency and Flood Mitigation Office issued a statement.

“At the Lehigh meeting, a death threat was made towards a member of the flood mitigation team. In addition to being very concerning and troubling, this type of behaviour is entirely unacceptable.”

Another meeting for Lehigh residents has been scheduled for Feb. 3. The mayor and council are expected to be there.

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