It’s official: More than a dozen homes along the White River are set to be demolished or moved to make way for a new floodwall to protect the town of Rocky Ripple.
The Rocky Ripple Town Board voted last week to move forward with the city of Indianapolis’ flood protection plans, which include removing 13 riverside homes and the Town Hall building. Two town officials voted for the plan while one was opposed.
“The vote was really to decide whether or not to give the green light for the city to move forward with the project,” said board member Megan Hulland, who voted no. “There is a certain amount of trust associated with moving forward.”
Rocky Ripple is an incorporated town surrounded by the city of Indianapolis, nestled between the White River and Central Canal. For its nearly 650 residents, the community is an oasis defined by its connection to the river.
That lifestyle, however, comes at a price if the river floods.
The existing levee was built in 1937. It is not accredited by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and is not certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — it also is not enough to provide protection, city Department of Public Works officials say.
"Rocky Ripple's current levee is in a state of disrepair, flood protection has been installed north of Rocky Ripple, and I do not want to see our town wiped out in a major flood event," said Town Board President Mandy Redmond on why she voted to move forward with the project.
Discussions have been underway for decades on how best to protect the community from the next one-in-100 years flood. The last time such a flood happened was more than a century ago in 1913.
Still, when such a flood happens, it is likely to leave many of the town’s interior homes under as much as 10 feet of water, the city has said. And experts say the changing climates and increased precipitation is making severe flooding more likely.
The town originally agreed in 2017 to a floodwall plan that would have saved all homes within Rocky Ripple. But late last year the city determined it had become too expensive — more than $95 million — and needed to go back to the drawing board.
The city’s new proposal, announced earlier this year, involved removing 13 homes and the Town Hall building to accommodate a less costly but larger earthen levee.
Given the changes to the plan, the city said it needed the thumbs up from Rocky Ripple to move forward. That’s what they got last week.
“The Rocky Ripple board did indeed vote to affirm the plan for flood protection as the City has presented it,” said DPW spokesman Ben Easley. With this understanding, the city will direct its consultant to progress to the final design phase and begin work to find a contractor.
The city also is going to work on an official project cooperation agreement to formalize the plan with both Rocky Ripple and Butler University officials. City officials expect the agreement to be adopted in the fall.
Still, Hulland said she doesn’t see this as a done deal. She said she voted no “because the loss of any homes is a tough pill to swallow and it didn’t feel we had the assurances that all alternatives were being carefully considered.”
The board member lives on the river but her home is not impacted. She said she expects there to be continued open discussions and public engagement. She also anticipates another vote to approve the final design.
There are lingering questions that still need to be answered, such as where the public will be able to access the river through the wall or where the Town Hall building will be moved. The city said it has started initial discussions on those points.
“This isn’t one-and-done,” Hulland added. “I would be very upset if there wasn’t another vote.”
The city said it does not expect another vote from Town Board members prior to voting on and signing the cooperation agreement. It told IndyStar that “the current alignment and number of homes that will be acquired is set" and that it doesn't not expect substantial changes to the design outline the city has presented.
"So it seems that the recent vote would be indicative of the Town Board's support of this design for the project," Easley said.
Resident Daniel Axler is hopeful for continued dialogue and that with this approval to move forward, the city might consider some different ideas. His house is one of those to be demolished.
Axler said he and his wife would be willing to be excluded from the wall and flood protection if it meant keeping their houses.
“People are getting worked up, as they should be,” said the decades-long Rocky Ripple resident. “We just keep pushing and just keep asking: Would you consider this? Is this possible?”
Their current house was meant to be their retirement home, he said. And his 86-year-old neighbor has lived in Rocky Ripple since he was two years old.
To move forward, the city will have to purchase the homes from the residents and agree on an amount to help cover some moving expenses. Still, Axler said many of his neighbors are worried since there is limited space available to move within Rocky Ripple and the housing market is cost prohibitive.
The land acquisition process is already underway, according to Easley, and will continue throughout this next stage of the design process. The city anticipates starting to make offers on the homes near the end of the year.
Redmond told IndyStar that she recognizes the concerns of the homeowners set to lose their homes and she is "not happy" the plans have changed. But she also represents — and must think of protecting — all Rocky Ripple residents.
The town "can absolutely still stop the project" if the town decides, Redmond said, since officials have not signed the project agreement yet. She would like to see the final plan so the Town Board "can make a final decision based on the holistic needs of the town, first and foremost for the safety of its residents and protection of the most homes."
Hulland said she would hate to see the project “totally change the face of this precious riverfront community.” While she thinks it will change Rocky Ripple if it moves forward, she hopes “it’s something that’s done thoughtfully and changes it for the better.”
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Dozen plus homes set to be razed to protect Rocky Ripple from flooding