Struggling between good intentions and the potential of huge lawsuits, the Star Valley Town Council Tuesday night pushed off the difficult decision of whether to help a citizen reconstruct his flood-damaged property.
Recent floodwaters have left the foundations of six residences vulnerable to destruction by another storm, but one resident’s home is now especially precarious.
Homeowner Dan Curtis has flood insurance, however, the waters must destroy his home before the policy pays.
If the town helps Curtis, it not only exposes itself to “unimaginable” liability for intervening on private property, town attorney Tim Grier warned the council, but it also sets a precedent. If the town helps one homeowner, it would likely have to help all homeowners.
However, some councilors said they felt morally obliged to help their fellow citizens — either financially or by applying for federal funds on the citizen’s behalf.
“It’s an emotional issue,” said councilor George Binney.
Councilors agreed the simplest solution — stabilizing the property with boulders — was also the worst solution because of potentially massive lawsuits. They did not vote on the issue, but instead informally agreed to pursue the current path, which involves informal advocating.
A plan to clear the stream of debris also elicited warnings from Grier, but councilors seemed less persuaded of that project’s perils.
Mayor Bill Rappaport said he spoke with Sen. John McCain to see if his office could help flood-affected Star Valley residents. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has declined to offer funding despite Gila County’s declaration of disaster.
“We can’t wait for any federal aid,” said Binney. “At least not for Dan Curtis’ home.”
Binney said the long-term solution involves building retention ponds, but that a short-term solution is also necessary. A dream, he said, is to ask homeowners owners to deed over threatened property to the town, which would then stabilize it and create a non-motorized trail system.
“It’s private property,” Binney said. “There’s only so much we can do.” If the land belonged to the town, however, we could fix it with boulders, or some other simple solution with the diminished liability.
“In this economy, the town can’t shell out the money,” said Councilor Vern Leis. “The town shouldn’t be taking responsibility for personal property.”
“If I do nothing, I feel guilty,” said Binney. He said that yesteryear, communities rallied together to help each other. Today, towns face liability for helping fellow citizens.
To complete work without appropriate engineering — “it is suicide,” Binney conceded.
Rappaport said he thought the town should at least sponsor residents, applying for federal aid on their behalf.
“You want to sponsor me drag racing?” asked Leis facetiously. For $1.5 million, he said he’d race away.
“I understand this is an emotional issue,” said Grier. He said a recent Arizona Supreme Court ruling on using public money for private property was “clear as mud.”
“I think you’re getting into — pardon this expression — troubled water when you do that,” he said.
“As your attorney, I have to warn that the liability is unimaginable when you start to alter any part of the stream bed,” he continued.
“You’re talking more money than I could imagine.”
However, he said a mere application doesn’t create liability. “You have to be very careful how you proceed,” said Grier.
A plan to clear the streambed of debris could also end in court if the clearing somehow resulted in future property damage downstream, he added.
“Under that logic, we do nothing,” said Binney, who called the dilemma a “Catch 22.”
“Are we liable for neglect if we don’t do anything?” asked floodwater task force member Bill Mennen.
Mennen said he wanted councilors to discuss the dilemma “to plant the seed” because the issue will inevitably arise as his committee begins clearing the stream’s center.
Grier said clearing too much could create erosion, resulting in liability.
Resident Gary Rolph said, “If you allow a dam to build up, then you flood multiple homes.”
The council did not provide direction on the stream clearing issue because it wasn’t listed as an agenda item.