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Lunken flood levee was not a "quiet" decision

City of Cincinnati
Lunken Airport

A newspaper report last weekend suggested Cincinnati officials allowed the federal government to quietly decertify a flood levee protecting Lunken Airport and nearby homes and businesses without telling city council or the affected property owners.

But testimony from city officials and documents suggest the process was anything but quiet.  Council's Budget and Finance Committee heard about the Lunken flood levee during a meeting last Tuesday.  

Officials told council members the city learned the Federal Emergency Management Agency was going to decertify the levee in a September 2007 letter because it no longer met federal regulations.  FEMA determined the levee needed to be raised between 1.5 to 3 feet to provide adequate flood protection.  

The city said such improvements would cost anywhere from $12 million to $115 million.  In May 2008, then city manager Milton Dohoney, Jr. sent a memo to the mayor and council members explaining the FEMA decision with a copy of the 2007 letter attached to it.  

Amit Ghosh with Buildings and Inspections told Council the city notified the 471 parcel owners about the FEMA decision in 2008 and held an open house for them on the issue.

“We explained to them that you want to get flood insurance before the maps change so that you can be grandfathered,” Ghosh said.  “And some of them did that.  Now there were those that probably didn’t do it.  If they had a federally-backed mortgage, then their mortgage holder informed them that you have a federally-backed mortgage and you are in a special flood hazard area, you need to buy flood insurance.”

Ghosh said the area affected by the FEMA decision is pretty compact including about 30 homes and some businesses on Wilmer Avenue across from Lunken airport.  He said in 2010 city council approved an ordinance related to the issue.

“Based on FEMA’s decision the maps were revised in February 2010 showing that this area is within the flood-plain of the Ohio River,” Ghosh said.

At least one council member, Charlie Winburn, suggested during last week's meeting the city had not notified council or the affected homeowners about the change.  Winburn was not on council when the memo was issued in 2008, but he was in 2010 and cast a “yes” vote on the 2010 ordinance changing the maps.  He said he does not remember that vote.  

Council member Wendell Young defended the city administration.

“Because this has a flavor for me of sort of accusing the administration of having dropped the ball and not done its job, and I’m not comfortable with that,” Young said.  “So at least for myself I want to make very clear that I don’t have that impression from anything they’ve said or from anything I’ve read.”

The city does plan to continue maintaining the existing levee at Lunken and it will provide protection from flooding except in the most extreme circumstances.  

Council members did ask a number of questions about the issue last week, and city officials are expected to have responses for the group next week.