Pima County will spend up to $200,000 per property to buy-out or relocate Catalina residents whose homes were damaged by the unprecedented flooding that roared down the Canada del Oro Wash this summer.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Oct. 7 to approve funding for the plan to acquire 75 separate land parcels the Pima County Flood Control District has deemed eligible for purchase.

The buy-outs, to be funded primarily by the county's Flood Prone Land Acquisition Program, are strictly voluntarily and some of the property owners may decide not to sell, said Suzanne Shields, director of the flood control district.

"The parcels are all from people who signed application forms that indicated they wanted us to give them an appraisal and were interested in being purchased," Shields said. "We visited all of the properties and completed the appraisals last week. We're now in the middle of negotiating with people on a one-on-one basis."

The action by the Board of Supervisors served to speed the acquisition process and increase by $100,000 the amount the county's procurement department can spend to purchase individual properties. The purchases will still need to be ratified by the board at a later date.

Residents seeking buy-outs or relocation whose properties are valued at more than $200,000 will have to have their applications for acquisition approved individually by the board, Shields said.

The county has no estimate of how many of the property owners will accept the appraisals and has yet to put a price tag on the overall cost of the purchases.

"It's hard to even estimate how much it's going to cost overall. Some of the properties are more than $100,000, some are less," Shields said of the acquisitions in Catalina.

The flood control district budgets an average of $3 million annually for buy-outs under its flood prone land program and has spent more than $39.3 million to purchase 11,456 acres of land since 1984, according to county records.

Federal, state and county governments each declared that an emergency existed in parts of Catalina and other areas around the CDO after flooding in July, August and early September.

The flooding, spurred by heavy rains and last summer's forest fires that denuded parts of the upper CDO watershed in the Catalina Mountains, destroyed or damaged scores of homes, closed roads, knocked out utilities and contaminated well water.

Several Catalina residents who met with county officials during a volatile public meeting Sept. 11 expressed concern that the county's appraisals would come in far below the market value they expected for their land.

That wariness seems to be waning as residents begin the negotiation process and realize the county's offers may be their only option, said Catalina resident Lori Faith Merritt, whose one acre parcel was flooded. She and her husband Bill Merritt are now considering the county's offer of a buy-out.

"There was lot of suspicion and anger at the Sept. 11 meeting, but I think a lot of people are beginning to realize that if the county doesn't buy their home, it would be almost impossible to find anyone else who will," she said. "I'm thankful that the opportunity is there."

Only 56 people had applied to the county for acquisition at the time of the September meeting. That number rose by 19 more parcels in less than a month, county records show.

Sinclair "Zeke" Browning, who saw 15 inches of black flood water pour through the home she lived in for 20 years, said she felt the county's buyout was moving a little slow.

"It's a lot slower than a lot of us would have liked, but I guess it takes time to move things through. We're now in our seventh week of being homeless and it's certainly taking its toll stress-wise, not just on our family, but on dozens of other people," Browning said.

The negotiations to to finalize acquisition agreements represents some of Pima County's final efforts to assist the flood victims in Catalina.

Several county departments and other agencies worked to aid the neighbors in the wake of the flooding, including the Pima County Sheriff's Department, which increased patrols to discourage looters; and the county's office of emergency management and community services departments, which worked with the Red Cross to find shelter for displaced residents.

"We've pretty much wrapped-up out there, but we're still available if people have questions or need monitoring or testing of their wells. They just have to call us," said Eric Shepp of the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality, which inspected 14 private wells and treated several of them for bacterial contamination caused by the flooding.

Patti Woodcock, a special staff assistant with the Pima County Health Department, said her department helped neighbors with everything from testing swimming pools for contamination to procuring hay for hungry horses after the floodwaters subsided.

"At this point, we're not getting that many calls from Catalina. We're just continuing to do mosquito monitoring and things like that, but I think we're done with much of the flood-related matters," Woodcock said.

Shields said after the acquisition agreements were completed, the flood control district's disaster work would also be coming to an end.

"There's not much else left. We will be contacting the residents to schedule meetings related to the remaining issues such as demolition of damaged homes and cleanup," Shields said.

For Browning, a writer who often drew upon life in Catalina to create a sense of place in her novels, the county's buy-outs also brings a measure of sadness.

"People here have a real sense of community. And it wasn't just a coffee-klatch-neighbor kind of thing. They helped each other out and really pitched in when someone was in need. The fact that I'm having to leave, and a lot of my neighbors are leaving, is the worst part," Browning said.

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