Fort McMurray residents wary of plan to buy out homes in 3 flood-prone neighbourhoods

Residents of Fort McMurray’s lower townsite are panning a proposal that would see the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo spend $135 million to buy up their homes in an effort to mitigate future flood damage.

Administration is recommending a full buyout of Draper, Ptarmigan Park and a partial buyout of Waterways, deputy CAO Matthew Hough told councillors this week. 

The buyout is based on cost and risk mitigation, not public input, Hough said Tuesday.

Council heard April’s flood caused more than $400-million in insured damages.

The municipality has spent about $150 million on flood mitigation, representing about half the cost of the work. The money went toward berms to protect Fort McMurray’s downtown, lower townsite and Taiga Nova Industrial Park. 

While all homes in Draper and Ptarmigan Park would be bought, only properties below the 250-metre elevation mark in Waterways would be purchased, meaning 94 properties would be removed, leaving 68 homes. 

The buyouts and remediation would cost $135 million, councillors heard. 

A survey of residents by administration found 62 per cent of about 860 respondents supported or strongly supported a buyout.

But residents have many questions about what a buyout or land swap will look like.

So far there is no information on whether the municipality would pay the cost of moving mobile homes, whether land would be expropriated or what happens if some residents decide to stay in their homes. 

Mackenzie Zimmer, 32, has been digging for two weeks to locate the sewer line on his property. He says the municipality’s recommendation to buyout the neighbourhood doesn’t bode well for his construction plans. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Two years after Mackenzie Zimmer, 32, bought his Ptarmigan Park home in 2014, it burned to the ground in the Horse River wildfire. 

Zimmer said his property was under-insured, so he wasn’t able to rebuild right away. He’s been saving since. 

Two weeks ago he started digging to locate the sewer line, as he intends to put a tiny home on the lot.  

The news the entire neighbourhood may be bought out came as a surprise. 

“I feel like the city’s decision to do this is kind of slowing me down,” Zimmer said. 

He intends to continue building. 

“If I put my home on piles I should be OK,” he said, adding he’s looking at building five feet above ground.

He said he wouldn’t be inclined to take a buyout as he would lose a substantial amount of money.

Plus the neighbourhood is great, he loves his neighbours and it’s close to his work, he said. 

‘This is a beautiful area’

The municipality’s recommendation bases the proposed buyout on each property’s tax assessment value, bad news for him, Zimmer said. 

“I’m going to lose more money than I did with the market crashing.” 

He paid $325,000 for the home and lot. Selling now at the assessed value would get him $70,000, he said. 

Shane Ganong, a Waterways resident for 10 years, lives at about the 250-metre mark, meaning his house wouldn’t be bought out by the municipality. 

“This is a beautiful area,” Ganong said. “And telling everyone to move out, especially after most of them are already done their renovations and are just finally getting back in, there’s a lot of frustration.”

He said he has mixed feelings about the buyout. While the space could become a nice park, he’d rather have neighbours.

“There’s a lot of good people here, I’d like to keep it that way.” 

Shane Ganong says he’d rather have neighbours than a new park in Waterways. (Jamie Malbeuf.CBC)

John Wuis, who has owned multiple properties in Ptarmigan Park over the last 25 years, said he’s open to the idea of a buyout or land swap, but needs more information.

“They have to have concrete proposals,” Wuis said.

 For example, if the municipality offers a land swap, he’d like to know who covers the $45,000 cost of moving his mobile home.

Hough said the municipality will be engaging with residents through Facebook Live and a phone-in town hall. 

But Wuis said that won’t work for him.

“I don’t know how to open my Facebook,” Wuis said. “I believe in the door-to-door.” 



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