Location: Elm Grove, Wisconsin

Highlighted: Activity 520

Point of Contact: Tom Harrigan, Planning and Zoning Administrator & David De Angelis, Village Manager, Village of Elm Grove, WI

Elm Grove, a suburban village in southeastern Wisconsin, was incorporated in 1955 ("History of Elm Grove," no date). It has a population of approximately 6,000 according to current census data, an area of about 3.3 square miles and an average household income (in 2015 dollars) of $114,755 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015; "Elm Grove, Wisconsin," no date).

Elm Grove has always struggled with flooding issues. The main flooding threats came from Underwood Creek and Dousman Ditch. In 1998 there was a storm event that produced 8-12 inches of rain over 7 hours and caused Underwood Creek to rise 6 feet in 15 minutes. Village officials estimate more than one third of all properties in Elm Grove suffered flood-related damages (Village of Elm Grove, no date). They decided to implement a property buyout program to reduce future flood losses. Initially the they reached out to property owners who were along and within the floodway and offered to work with them to buyout the properties using hazard mitigation grant program (HMGP) funds. At the time, only one homeowner took advantage of the program and sold their property.

Flooded road in Elm Grove, WI. Image courtesy of the Village of Elm Grove.

Since this initial buyout offering was not successful, village officials decided to take a broader approach. They worked with the regional planning commission that did a regional drainage basin study, and the USACE worked with them to evaluate various construction options. They then embarked on their own engineering evaluations based on the data collected. A final design was chosen and implemented using funding from multiple sources including HMGP, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) and a stormwater utility. They worked with FEMA and the WDNR to create floodplain amendments and changes. The MMSD provided $1 million toward the construction of one of the flood storage facilities in exchange for some additional capacity to accommodate naturalization work downstream. Two of the flood storage facilities were created on the acquired properties, and one was built in an existing park. (Village of Elm Grove, 2006). A second attempt at a buyout program was also implemented.

Village officials reached out to the public before the buyout program was made public in order to educate homeowners on why this was such an important project and why it was necessary. One of the major points of resistance to the buyout program was buildings that held historical significance, including the American Legion Post. With continued outreach and education, property owners eventually understood the necessity of the program and were open to buyouts.

Learn more about how your community can take credit for property acquisitions in the floodplain. Check out the Green Guide profile for Activity 520.

After successfully implementing this second round of buyouts and the flood management facilities, only one severe repetitive loss building remains of the 52 properties originally in the floodplain. All other repetitive loss and severe repetitive loss buildings have either been relocated or removed. Properties that were bought include one residential property (purchased July 2000), the American Legion Post (which was purchased in July 2000 and relocated in an adjacent city), a 99-unit apartment building (purchased January 2004) and four commercial buildings (purchased 2004-2005). Unfortunately the community is built out, so officials were unable to relocate property owners in the village.

The cost of acquisition of the properties was approximately $5.5 million. Approximately $2 million in outside funding was received, meaning the village paid approximately $3.5 million for the purchases. In addition, Elm Grove paid approximately $125,000 to move and relocate the 73 tenants of a large apartment building and two property owners from another commercial property.

Other costs to the community included a full-time staff person who spent 75-85% of their time on the buyout and facility program. The maintenance cost on the acquired properties is hard to track. All areas are deed restricted as open space and four properties are retention basins. The village spent approximately $10,000-15,000 on restoring wetlands and native plantings, and approximately $5,000 a year on mowing and other routine maintenance costs.

Flooded Village Park in Elm Grove, WI. Image courtesy of Elm Grove.

Elm Grove encountered some resistance to the naturalization process. Some community members said the naturalized areas looked like "weeds." The village spent time educating the public about the benefits of naturalizing the floodplain, and today there is widespread acceptance and appreciation of these areas.

Another challenge was educating the press. The original plan to buyout buildings was reported in the local press before property owners were contacted. This understandably led to resistance by the property owners. However, once they were educated about the process and necessity of the buyout, the program was able to proceed.

The success of this buyout program can be assessed in several ways. In a typical 100-year-flood event between 1-52 properties would have been affected. Since the buyouts, there has been a 300-year-flood event and two separate 100 year flood events and none have resulted in property damage due to overland flooding. In addition, some of the acquired properties were converted into recreation spaces and trails for the benefit of the community; while other spaces remain open or naturalized, which provides benefits to wildlife.

Best practices shared by this community:

  1. Get your citizens involved as early as possible.
  2. Choose your advocates within the community (civic organizations, environmental groups, outdoor enthusiasts, etc.)
  3. Have a plan to educate the press. Get the word out to the homeowners before there is news in the press.

Through their efforts to buyout homes in the floodplain and other creditable activities in the CRS program, Elm Grove reached a Class 5 in the CRS. This results in a 25% annual reduction in flood insurance premiums for policyholders.