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posted: 9/5/2013 9:41 AM

Editorial: The search for middle high ground in flooding controversy

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Sometimes there are no easy answers in conflicts between citizens and local government. But almost always there are answers that can ease the conflict.

Consider a controversy in Wheeling, where residents of a mobile home community located in a floodway near the Des Plaines River have an unhappy choice. They can continue to fight to stay in their homes, which promises to be a long battle with no certainty of winning nor even that their homes would be safe if they did win. Or they can capitulate and work with the village to find new residences - that they more than likely will not own and that will probably not be as convenient to a major roadway as they currently are to Milwaukee Avenue.

The April floods did a number on Fox Point, a 50-year-old mobile home community built before development upriver caused the area to perpetually flood. Since April, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has declared seven homes there to be uninhabitable; and officials say 25 others sustained varying degrees of damage ranging from mold to structural instability and electrical problems.

Residents, most of them immigrants, dispute officials' assessment of the severity of the damage, and accuse Wheeling of wanting Fox Point eliminated so it can redevelop the land more lucratively. The village says it doesn't want to redevelop the land - just to clear the homes from it and leave it as floodway.

Jon Sfondilis, Wheeling village manager, says Wheeling wants to help residents find the money to help them relocate. But, he adds, "I understand why they don't want to move. They own their homes, they have a community."

Therein lies the dilemma. Thinking practically, it's hard to see any motive here for Wheeling or FEMA beyond preserving the safety of the 41 families in Fox Point.

But Sfondilis is right that the unique community of Fox Point would disappear if residents take FEMA buyouts and disperse for whatever apartment complexes they find convenient and affordable.

Is there middle high ground? Maybe.

Safety, of course, is paramount. People cannot be permitted to live in unsafe conditions, whatever their emotional attachments. But for those homes that are safe or that can be deemed safe, perhaps time is the humanitarian bulwark. Could the village and federal government not give residents in those circumstances the opportunity to stay a while longer, perhaps even a matter of years before forcing them out?

The Des Plaines River is driving this dispute, so Fox Point's days are clearly numbered. But if officials can assign a reasonable number to those days rather than insisting on immediate evacuation, they can eliminate the perception of government indifference. More important, a community can be protected and at least some of the unhappiness can be removed from the choice facing its residents.

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