As flood risk rises across Meck County, so does the cost to move to higher ground

CHARLOTTE — When Wes Knowles and Tom Harrison bought their house on Mounting Rock Road more than 30 years ago, they thought their future was set. They loved their neighborhood, they had a spacious backyard and they weren’t particularly worried about the small creek, more than a football field away, that winded through the woods behind the property.

When they bought the land, they learned there was a flood plain that came up to the back of the property, so out of an abundance of caution, Knowles opted for flood insurance. A few years later, he was grateful he did.

In 1997, the remnants of Hurricane Danny swept through the Charlotte area, dumping 8-12 inches of rain. The Sugar Creek swelled, and the neighborhood was inundated.

“Our house had an inch of water in it and our neighbors on either side of us had knee-deep water,” Knowles said.

By the time FEMA drew its next map of the flood plain, most of the street was on it. Knowles said they never saw another flood quite as bad 97′s, but over the next several years, street flooding was a regular occurrence.

“Once we moved in, we were told one thing but then as your city infrastructure grows there’s obviously more runoff and it impacts the streams and the creeks and it impacted this one pretty severely,” he said.

They weren’t surprised when Charlotte-Mecklenberg Storm Water Services organized a meeting with the neighborhood about the flood issues, however the county’s proposed solution caught them off guard.

“You just didn’t realize it was as serious as we’re looking at offering to buy your home,” Harrison said. “It just was a wakeup call.”

The floodplain buyout program

Since 1999, Storm Water Services has been partnering with FEMA to identify high risk properties in the flood plain and offering to buy them out at market value. The project has removed hundreds of properties from the floodplain, prevented tens of millions in damages and restored roughly 200 acres of public space, that has been used for stream restoration projects or left as green space to absorb water during heavy rainfalls.

“We’re anticipating over the years over 300 million dollars in losses avoided because those homes aren’t there anymore,” John Wendell, the county’s spokesperson, said. “Over time it just keeps adding up.”

The Chantilly Ecological Sanctuary at Briar Creek is the result of a buyout program, as are a few portions of the city’s greenway system.

In the meantime, the city’s flooding risk has only grown. The North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies reports the number of heavy rainfall events in the state have been trending up and as global temperatures rise at more water saturates the atmosphere, that trend is set to continue. At the same time, Charlotte’s floodplain has expanded, due to community growth, increases in impervious surfaces around the watershed and improved technology to model future flood potential.

“When we do a buyout we’re going for the highest most riskiest properties,” Wendell said.

The county approached the residents living off Mounting Rock rd. in 2019, to let them know, due to FEMA grant funds, Storm Water Services would be able to bring the program to their neighborhood, if anyone was interested in selling.

An appraiser would determine the value of the house, FEMA would pay homeowners the 2018 value of their homes, while county dollars cover the difference and help with some of the moving costs.

At first, Jonathan Beller, the project’s manager, said the neighborhood was skeptical, but as they learned more about it and weighed their options, about fifteen homeowners agreed to weigh the decision, including Andrea Jones.

“I had no inkling of moving,” she said. “I hadn’t thought about moving but when I saw that and I saw the flooding of the street I thought it was something I wanted to look into.”

2020 changed everything

As the program waited for those FEMA dollars to come in, the pandemic happened.

“Prices of homes went up and the inventory went down,” Beller said. “Along with that interest rates skyrocketed.”

Suddenly, sellers faced a new set of obstacles, and while Storm Water Services was working to secure more funding to help offset moving costs and temporarily cover those new interest rates, Beller knew they couldn’t control one of the most important factors to those considering a move.

“I wanted to stay in Mecklenberg County but the market was just not there,” Jones said. “The inventory was just not there to meet my means.”

Since 2019, the average value of a home in Mecklenberg County has gone up 59 percent, pushing comparable properties to her home on Mounting Rock Rd.

“I wish there was available housing up the road out of the flood plain for these folks to move to,” Beller said.

To stay or go?

Late 2020 brought another factor for those on Mounting Rock Rd to consider. The street flooded again.

“We had a foot of water in the shed,” Harrison said. “And we built it up just to avert that.”

For Jones it was the last straw. Even though the water didn’t rise high enough to get in her home, she was sick of it.

“It came up to my mailbox. It was scary,” she said. “You couldn’t leave the neighborhood.”

Ultimately, she took the county’s deal, and moved in May to a comparable home in Fort Mill.

“I have no regrets,” she said. “It was just a peace of mind thing for me.”

For Knowles and Harrison though, moving still isn’t in the cards.

“We moved Wesley’s mother and father [to the neighborhood] a couple of years ago and we made a commitment to be there for them,” Harrison said.

With flood insurance and their relative high ground in the neighborhood, they’re hopeful their house will fare well into the future.

Still Knowles says they’re not taking moving off the table forever. As much as they love their home, they may come a time when it’s no longer worthwhile to stay. Even then though, Knowles said it will never be easy to move.

“We bought a place in good faith that we thought would be our forever home,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest investments we’re ever going to make from a financial standpoint and to think that could all just go away. It’s sad.”

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.