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December 3, 2013

Merced to pay $55K to assess floodway by radar

The city of Merced will spend more money on an analysis that began with last month’s aerial scan of the Bellevue Ranch West development, where the city is assessing if work that was done on the property could increase the threat of flooding.

The city of Merced will spend more money on an analysis that began with last month’s aerial scan of the Bellevue Ranch West development, where the city is assessing if work that was done on the property could increase the threat of flooding.

The city has already spent about $45,000 on the assessment, which included a Light Detection and Ranging scan, or LIDAR, of Bellevue Ranch West, land owned by Baxter Ranches LLC since September 2012. The scan will allow city staff to determine if, and to what extent, the grading happened.

LIDAR combines lasers and radar to digitally scan elevations from the air. “Grading” is an engineering term used to describe the process of using heavy machinery to raise or lower land elevation.

With a 5-2 vote on Monday, Merced City Council pushed the assessment budget up to $100,000, which will pay for continued analysis of the scan by an outside hydrologist. Councilmen Kevin Blake and Josh Pedrozo cast the dissenting votes.

The assessment comes after a Sept. 10 California Department of Fish and Wildlife letter to Baxter Ranches ordering the developer to “immediately stop all filling, grading and farm activities on the property.”

The Fish and Wildlife letter stated the developer “substantially altered the seasonal wetlands and swales adjacent to Fahrens Creek.” The agency determined that dirt had been moved into the flood control areas along the creek, and “multiple acres” of habitat had been disturbed or filled in with dirt.

The letter also ordered the developer to take steps to restore the changes, including a written plan.

Real estate developer Greg Hostetler, owner of the development, admitted that workers had damaged about 2½ acres of wetlands, but he maintains it was done accidentally by tractor drivers. He said plans are in place to begin restoring those damaged areas.

However, he said he is not at fault for any dirt moved into the floodplain, which includes the waterway and the extra space at the edge of the creek meant to catch excess water. He also said workers have graded many spaces, but not along the creek.

He contends any dirt pushed into the plain was done before he became the owner, adding the land was not maintained for a number of years.

“We would not have filled the floodway; we know not to fill the floodway,” Hostetler said.

Some of the area was cleared of weeds, he said, after his firm received requests for weed abatement from fire officials. He estimated his crews removed 100 loads of trash and construction debris from the area.

Hostetler said, though the dirt in the plain is not his fault, he has acquired the proper permits and has signed a contract with a crew to rebuild the floodway to its original design. He said he is waiting to get approval from the city.

“We don’t want to have issues with the city or anyone else out there,” he said, adding the floodway could be made right in three or four days of work. “We would rather do this than spend money on attorneys fees.”

Hostetler has tried to do the assessment of damage on his own, but the City Council decided to move forward on its own analysis.

Mayor Stan Thurston said about 250 acres of land has been graded, so an assessment is necessary. “The city does not know what impact that has on which way the water goes,” he said. “So, we have to find that out.”

The latest dollars added to the assessment will pay for a consultant to compare the recent LIDAR scan with one from 2002, assuming the latter is complete. “We’ll find out if we have a little problem, or a big problem with the grading,” he said.

If the 2002 scan is usable, the assessment will be cheaper than a more lengthy alternative, Thurston said.

According to city staff, the developer who owned Bellevue Ranch before Hostetler’s Baxter Ranches built flood control banks along the east side of Fahrens Creek. In April 2006, the Merced area saw major flooding, but the controls along Fahrens Creek protected the homes in the Bellevue Ranch development.

The city’s concern lies in protecting homeowners, as well as protecting itself from litigation, if flooding were to occur. The same flooding that Bellevue avoided in 2006 damaged some 275 properties in the Beachwood-Franklin area.

A federal lawsuit by affected residents in that flooded area named the city, Merced County and Merced Irrigation District as defendants. The case carried on for about three years, and the city of Merced spent about $3 million on outside attorney fees as well as $1.5 million on a settlement.

Merced County and MID spent even more.

Pedrozo, who voted against allotting more cash to the analysis, said the assessment certainly needs to go forward but might be able to be done more cheaply.

“We’re spending this money with no guarantee we’re going to get it back,” Pedrozo said, adding the city might be able to use a staff engineer to assess the scans. “It’s a substantial sum of money.”

If found to be at fault, Baxter Ranches could be on the hook to reimburse the city, according to the city attorney’s office.

Bellevue Ranch West, approved by Merced City Council in 1995, is a housing development on either side of Cardella Road between G Street and Highway 59.

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