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Plenty of questions remain as deep-rooted boat-house community in flood-damaged Ellis Harbor works to return to some version of normalcy

In City Hall, FEMA, Floods, Jim Prosser on April 2, 2009 at 9:55 pm

The future is still murky for the Ellis Park Boat Harbor and the small, tightly packed little structures on the water there called boat houses.

The boat houses have been part of the local landscape for decades.

The June 2008 flood, though, bashed the little community, sending some of the houses down the river, crashing into a railroad bridge. Other houses were pushed up onto the river bank or otherwise damaged.

What had been 130 homes now is down to about 70.

After their meeting on Thursday, members of the city’s Riverfront Improvement Commission suggested that life will return to the remaining boat houses in some form this spring, but they said it likely will be 2010 before a semblance of normalcy was back in place.

This summer, owners of the boat houses look as if they will have to pay to restore temporary electric service to their homes until a longer-term, permanent service is installed.

Such a permanent solution will need to await the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the city coming to a decision on damages to the harbor and a plan of action to make repairs, council member Chuck Wieneke, who represents the west-side council district where the harbor is located, said after the Riverfront Improvement Commission on Thursday.

Wieneke said the current estimate is that the 2008 flood caused $1.8 million in damage to the public infrastructure in the harbor.

The boat house owners actually have endured two poundings. First there was the flood, and then an announcement in the wake of the flood by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources that the boat houses were illegal structures as set out by state regulations.

After much discussion between owners and the DNR, the DNR has decided to grant variances for a fee of $25 each to the owners to allow them to stay for now. In the meantime, the DNR said it will rewrite rules that will allow boat houses with roofs and sides to stay in the harbor. Boat house owners and commission members Carl Cortez and Jeff McLaud, though, said they still waiting to see the new rules.

Even with new rules, the DNR is insisting that the owners upgrade the way the houses are moored in the river, Cortez said, and the agency also is requiring that owners take better steps to insure that waste water in the form of sewage and shower/sink water not enter the river.

A problem a little farther down the road, said Cortez, is another DNR rule, which says owners’ boat houses must be removed from the harbor once they are sold or passed on to relatives or someone else. Unless changed, it is a rule that will guarantee the boat house community dies out.

The city now charges $360 a year for the typical boat house to sit in the Ellis Harbor, and Bob Fox, one of the house owners, told the commission that he is going to be reluctant to pay the fee if he can’t get electricity to his boat house this summer. Cortez said he wants to see his DNR variance permit before he invests money to temporarily restore electricity to his property.

In recent weeks, the City Council voted to step back and let the DNR take responsibility for the harbor.

On Thursday, though, members of the six-member Riverfront Improvement Commission, four of whom own boat houses, expressed a fresh sense of optimism after City Manager Jim Prosser attended the commission meeting and made some commitments to them.

Prosser heard first hand from Tom Furnish Jr., the commission chairman, and the others how frustrated the commission has been over some years now. The told Prosser how a City Council in recent years, but prior to his time, did away with the commission’s own paid staff and rolled the riverfront responsibility into the Parks and Recreation Department.

In the last couple years, City Hall has all but ignored the commission, members told Prosser.

“We just felt like we’ve been swimming upstream,” Furnish said. “… We were getting somewhat frustrated.”

Prosser made a commitment to the commission that he and council member Wieneke would identify a city employee to facilitate meetings between the commission and city staff. The exercise will try to bring some clarity and resources to the commission’s mission both at the harbor and at many other places along the city’s riverfront, Prosser said.

Commission member McLaud said he’d long had an interest in all parts of the river here, not just the harbor, and commission member Walter Cheney wondered how the commission could add members in the future.

Prosser told the commission that he would expect to start the exercise with the commission within 30 days and to have something accomplished in 90 days.

“I think you told us what we wanted to hear,” Furnish said.