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Residents forced to give up backyards for Rio de Flag construction
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Residents forced to give up backyards for Rio de Flag construction

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Karen Fella’s backyard has no fence. Only a few bushes separate her property on North Navajo Drive from a channel of the Rio de Flag, which itself is full of shrubbery and aspen trees.

On the other side of the channel are the Thorpe Park Little League fields, which she can see from her back windows, and a rock and flower garden takes up about a fourth of her yard.

Fella has lived in the home permanently for the last 13 years, and owned the property for about 30 years.

But now, Fella fears the backyard she enjoys so much during the summer may be a victim of progress, specifically the City of Flagstaff’s Rio de Flag flood control project.

And Fella is not alone. Earlier this month, all of the residents along a one-block stretch of Navajo Drive received letters from the city letting residents know the city would need to use five feet of their property to accommodate construction of the flood control project.

“The City of Flagstaff will be improving Rio de Flag flood control from Thorpe Road to Beal Road,” the letter from a Tempe-based real estate appraiser reads.

Those improvements behind the homes on Navajo Drive will include a flood wall and likely the clearing of the channel, but no public infrastructure will be left on their property, according to the city.

“I don’t want any wall, because my bushes are my wall of green back there. I don’t mind watching people walk through the Rio and bike through the Rio and the ball fields are back there, but it looks like that’s going to be a necessity,” Fella said.

She added she worries the construction on her property will mean the destruction, and potentially the shrinking of her backyard.

Bonnie Feathers, who lives just north of Fella, said she also worries about how construction will impact the yard she has put thousands of dollars into. Feathers described her backyard as a little Mexican courtyard full of plants and trees that provide shade in the summer afternoons.

In an email, city spokesperson Jessica Drum said the city will pay to have all the properties appraised and then pay for the use of the land.

The area used “will be returned to its pre-construction condition to the greatest extent possible,” Drum wrote.

But Feathers said there are some parts of her backyard that are difficult to put a value on and impossible to replace -- for example, the four trees she has along her back wall.

“How do you put a value on 11 years' growth of trees? The entire backyard is shaded in summer, especially from the western setting sun,” Feathers said. “And in the meantime we really lose our entire backyard because you can’t let a dog out with all that stuff going on.”

Fella also said she doesn’t know if she can trust the appraiser provided by the city and is considering whether she should hire another appraiser separately.

“When you have a person or company that’s paid for by one side of this issue, which is the city, then that person could even not knowingly be prejudiced toward the city’s view,” Fella said.

But as much as Fella and Feathers may dread what will happen to their backyards, there is no way for property owners between Thorpe Road and Beal Road to opt out, Drum wrote.

Still, property owners are invited to attend all public meetings regarding the Rio De Flag project and will have an opportunity to discuss the offer with the city’s Real Estate Manager, Drum wrote. At that time, residents can also provide additional information for the city to consider regarding compensation for landscaping.

Additionally, the city is on a deadline, having committed to acquiring all the necessary property rights needed for the project by the end of May, Drum wrote.

Fella said residents have long known about the project, which is designed to protect the city from a 100-year flood event.

Such a flood would impact 1,500 homes and businesses in the area of downtown, the Southside neighborhood and Northern Arizona University, and is estimated to cost close to $1 billion, according to the city.

But Fella said she has never worried about such a flood, adding she has spoken to neighbors who feel their properties are only affected because the city made mistakes in the infrastructure built downstream.

Fella added because of how long the city has been working on the project, and how much the project has changed over the years, many of the affected residents don’t trust the city anymore. For example, Fella said residents still haven’t been given an exact height when it comes to the flood wall.

“The [city staff] we were working with 10 years ago are gone and then you have people who have no clue about what was going on in the past, and no clue about what we were told,” Fella said. “A lot of people in this neighborhood have given a lot of hours of their time over the past many years trying to deal with the city about this project.”

Last year, residents received a letter asking for permission to allow city staff to enter properties and examine the area in preparation for the flood control project.

Fella said she signed those papers but Feathers and a number of other neighbors didn’t.

And Fella said she doesn’t see why the city can’t simply move the Rio’s channel, and thus the construction of the flood wall, farther to the west. The property on the other side of the channel is city owned and only contains the softball fields, gravel parking lots and the urban trail.

While moving the channel somewhat could mean moving the urban trail, she believes it would preserve the backyards of everyone on her block.

According to James Duval with the capital improvements division at the city, there are currently no plans to move the electric and gas utility lines that also run behind the homes, but that may come later.

Adrian Skabelund can be reached at the office at askabelund@azdailysun.com, by phone at (928) 556-2261 or on Twitter @AdrianSkabelund.

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