After a quarter-century of talk and delays, Orange County is moving forward with plans to buy all of the property that lies in the expanded Prado Dam flood plain.
Buying the land will allow the dam, a familiar sight off the Riverside Freeway and Corona Expressway, to be raised by nearly 30 feet--greatly reducing the threat of flooding of the Santa Ana River in urbanized Orange County, but increasing the potential area of flooding behind it into less-populated parts of San Bernardino County.
Orange County's flood control district has budgeted $20 million this year, and is working to find $50 million more for next year to buy those San Bernardino County properties. More than 1,600 acres owned by 247 property owners, including large dairy farms and single-family homes, could be affected. Much of the rest of the land lies in the San Bernardino Agricultural Preserve.
"We will be conducting surveys, property appraisals and right-of-way maps," said Herbert Nakasone, manager of the county program development division. "We need to know land values and boundaries."
The expansion includes installing gates to handle twice the current discharge, raising the spillway and building levees to protect property in the Prado Dam reservoir basin. Light work will start this year, and heavy construction is expected to begin next year, with completion scheduled for 2006.
San Bernardino County property owners who have waited years to learn the fate of their homes and lands are watching carefully.
Dairyman Ben Vanderlaan, who has more than 700 cattle on 30 acres, said he and many of his rural neighbors have been there more than two decades, and they have few options for relocation because of the high costs for large parcels of real estate.
"In Northern California [where farmland is available], the cost for a dairy permit is astronomical," Vanderlaan said. Ten to 15 years ago, he said, he could have bought property there for $1,000 to $1,200 an acre. Now, it's $6,000, he said.
Nakasone said county officials are hoping to offer landowners fair market value for their properties, rather than acquiring it through eminent domain.
Sentiment is predictably divided. Prado's expansion is one of the last pieces of the mammoth $1.3-billion Santa Ana River Mainstem project, created to protect hundreds of thousands of residents living in northern Orange County. Much of central Orange County--including portions of Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley--lie in the Santa Ana River flood plain. Until last year's completion of the Seven Oaks Dam near Redlands, Orange County homeowners and businesses paid flood insurance premiums as high as $800 a year.
"Of course, downstream residents love Prado's expansion," said John Cusey, a spokesman for Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar), who obtained an additional $18 million this year for the river project. "Upstream residents see the need for it too, but they just don't want to be adversely affected by it."
Supervisor Jim Silva, whose district includes Orange County cities lying within the flood plain, said the buyout cost is money well spent.
"We will get the equivalent of a 200-year flood protection system once the entire river project is completed," Silva said. "I want to make sure people [who] live in the proposed flood plain behind the dam will be compensated fairly. Relocation costs are built-in, but I really feel that Orange County will deal professionally and very fairly with everybody."
Already, 22 properties have been bought for economic hardship cases, but the majority of the targeted land remains in private hands.
At a recent town hall meeting in Chino, Miller and dozens of worried property owners listened as Orange County officials laid out the Prado plan.
"They are frustrated because people have been talking about Prado Dam's expansion for 25 to 30 years," said Chino City Manager Glen Rojas. "But they heard that Miller has been working to secure more funding for buying their land."
Chino is now feeling pressure from those property owners, who want the city to change zoning in the targeted area from agricultural to industrial use, which would bring higher asking prices.
That includes Vanderlaan. In 1993, he said he had two appraisals done on his land, and because of the uncertainty surrounding Prado, "I was threatened with condemnation."
Shortly afterward, Orange County's finances collapsed in the nation's biggest municipal bankruptcy. That had a domino effect, because flood control funds were tied up, forcing flood officials to halt land acquisition.
"We understand they've been waiting a long time, and the sooner we get started would be better for everyone," Nakasone said.