Flood Protection Options for Rocky Ripple

Rendering for one section of Rocky Ripple illustrating areas affected by one flood wall treatment option. Rendering by DPW for discussion only.

by Thomas P. Healy

Four different options for flood protection for the Town of Rocky Ripple were unveiled at a June 6 meeting by the City of Indianapolis.

In his brief remarks Jeff Bennett, deputy mayor of community development, acknowledged that residents have sought a solution for more than two decades. “You’ve lived this project from the start,” Bennett said. “I really hope we can help you see it through to the finish.”

He highlighted recent developments, including a Memorandum of Understanding that prompted the City of Indianapolis and the Town of Rocky Ripple to focus on the banks of the existing WPA-era earthen levee. The City paid for recent vegetation removal along public land owned by the Town to help stabilize the banks, he said.

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“Also, last year we hired [engineering firm] AECOM to review all the federal flood-protection efforts to date,” he said. The company’s analysis “helps build a foundation for future work” and led to the multiple draft renderings shown at the meeting.

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“Earlier this year, the Mayor solidified the City’s commitment by announcing an initial $10 million investment for a flood-reduction project for the Town,” he added. That gets things started, he said, but acknowledged, “It’s obvious that $10 million isn’t enough. Of course, more money is needed.” Stating that “we have lots of options, not just one” for funding, Bennett suggested the State of Indiana and Butler University could potentially provide additional resources.

Bennett addressed questions surrounding the $10 million the City is offering. “The money is real and will be used to support the consensus flood-protection project the residents support. It’s not a spending cap,” he said.

“Our effort is focused and coordinated,” he said. “Over the past 18 months there has been more progress on your behalf than in any time in the past 18 years.”

‘A local project that fits us’

Rocky Ripple Town Council member Mandy Redmond was pleased with the progress. “I think we’ve fostered a partnership with the City and Department of Public Works and Butler to get to this point.”

Town Council president Carla Gaff-Clark agrees. “It’s definitely the most money we’ve ever had,” she said. Gaff-Clark said that during her previous term on the Town Council in the 1990s, “They were talking to us but not hearing us.” That has changed. “We need a local project that fits us,” she said, adding that the new project could take 10 years to realize.

Based on AECOM’s analysis, the City has produced a series of renderings in three different sections of Rocky Ripple that examine the impacts of each of four different options featuring different levels of protection. Three earthen-levee options (including one with a three-foot wall) and one “inverted T-wall” option were developed for further discussion. According to Department of Public Works (DPW) project manager Mike Massonne, each option requires a 15-foot “clear zone” devoid of either woody vegetation or structures. Massonne presented slides of each rendering that depicted existing conditions as well as illustrations of the “clear zone” impacts.

After opening remarks and the presentation, the renderings were displayed in a separate room during an open house–style gathering, where attendees were able to ask City officials and DPW staff questions and gain clarification.

‘Not enough and not certain’

Prior to the meeting, a group of Rocky Ripple residents and supporters from the Build the Wall for All Campaign held a news conference to ask Mayor Joe Hogsett to stop floodwall construction along Westfield Boulevard.

Attorney Russ Sipes represents several residents who have filed a notice of intent to sue the City of Indianapolis to halt the Westfield Alignment project. In a phone conversation prior to the press conference, Sipes articulated his clients’ concerns. “This dispute has been around for a long time,” he said. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers just began work on the final phase of their project [the Westfield Alignment] that walls Rocky Ripple off into the floodplain and protects the rest of the area adjacent to the floodwall except Rocky Ripple.”

He said part of his clients’ claim is that by undertaking the Westfield Alignment, property values in Rocky Ripple have declined. “That’s a current damage,” he said, “but we believe that when that wall is done in its current path, floodwater is going to be shoved into the river channel behind the floodwall and flooding in Rocky Ripple will be dramatically worse.” He said the claim is based on the legal doctrine of nuisance, which he defined as “an interference of the use and enjoyment of their property.”

Channing Webster is one of the parties to the lawsuit. He lives in the interior of Rocky Ripple and says his garage floods during a hard rain. “I don’t doubt the sincerity of the City in terms of their commitment of $10 million,” he said, “but it’s not enough and it’s not certain. The issue is what happens to property values until the second wall gets built and certified. I don’t understand how the property values are not going to take a huge hit.”

It’s estimated that upon certification, the floodwall would remove current restrictions on building in the floodplain and lenders would likely no longer require flood insurance as a condition for granting a mortgage. Webster said those factors will increase property values, but since his property would not be protected under the current plan, he wouldn’t benefit. “I don’t have anything against an infrastructure project,” he said. “I just don’t understand how the government can pick winners and losers.”

He and his neighbors drafted a petition asking the City to halt construction of the Westfield Alignment and consider a single-wall alternative built to Army Corps standards that would include Rocky Ripple. They went door-to-door and obtained 268 signatures from 204 homes. They then met with Deputy Mayor Thomas Cook to present the petitions and state their case. “He was sympathetic,” Webster said, “but what sticks out in my mind is he said, ‘if the City turns this thing around and says we’re going to go along the river just like you want us to, I’ll have a whole group of people telling me how wrong I am to not have the route go along the canal.’”

While Webster appreciates the City’s dilemma, he doesn’t see it as equivalent. “They’re saying ‘give me my free floodwall right now,’” he said. “It’s not fair. They’re not going to lose. I’m saying, ‘Pause, so you can at least make sure I don’t get hurt by your gift.’ They may not gain what they thought they would but they’re not going to lose. If the Westfield Alignment moves forward, I’m going to lose.”

Sipes said his clients have questions about the fiscal responsibility of constructing and maintaining two separate floodwalls, a floodgate across the Canal, and a separate intake for Citizens Water near the former Naval Armory on White River. He said his clients recommend creating a flood district to handle construction as well as ongoing operations and maintenance. “It’s allowed by state law. It’s an independent entity that can bond projects,” he said. “Make the flood district responsible for the completion of the wall around Rocky Ripple instead of bypassing it.” He said that spreading out costs among an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 properties could lighten the financial burden for the City and leverage any additional funds the City might find.

“There’s a better way to do it without significant impact on anyone, including taxpayers,” Sipes said. After having tried everything else, Sipes said his clients opted to sue. “This is their last hope.”

View the entire range of options presented at the meeting here.