Ocean View aims to keep West View dry

Ocean View officials on May 31 aired a proposal for a drainage project that would aim to improve flooding problems in the West View development and its vicinity. The plan would aim to alleviate flooding problems in the area of New Castle Court, Judith’s Run, Tyler Drive, Sussex Court and West Avenue — problems the town’s contracting engineer says have only worsened since the filling in of a drainage swale by property owner in 2005.

Engineer Alan Kercher of Kercher Engineering described the problem as “a tale of two developments,” in which planning for initial phases of Savannah’s Landing and West View had only included sufficient drainage to accommodate what was planned to be built in those particular phases.

Phase 2 of Savannah’s Landing, he said, had only added enough drainage for those additional homes, without taking into account the whole system of drainage in the area or future development surrounding it. It had been designed with 150 homes to start, later adding capacity for a total of 190. There are now 194 homes in the development.

The result, Kercher said, is that the area can no longer handle the kind of water it sees in a significant rainstorm, leading to feet of water accumulating on the lowest-lying properties in the vicinity. Photographs of homes on isolated islands of dry land after this spring’s storms graphically demonstrated the problem.

Due to changes to natural drainage paths, sediment accumulation in the existing drainage swales and poor engineering of the swales, days after such a storm, he said, water and sediment are still at levels of 1 to 8 inches in swales that should, ideally, be dry by that time.

All of that stormwater flows through the area toward Savannah’s Landing and the Assawoman Canal, and always has — one way or another — Kercher said. But increased stormwater levels, reduced permeable surface (due to development) and the filling in of existing drainage swales has led to a crisis point that pushed the town to action.

Kercher’s solution is multi-fold:

(1) Place in some of the swales a geo-textile fabric that will keep out dirt but allow water to drain through into the surrounding ground, combined with stone and a perforated pipe that will help keep down mosquitoes and filter out large debris while still allowing the water to percolate into the soil. He noted that the combination had proven successful in The Cottages, as well as in Fenwick Island, which has also suffered from major flooding problems, as it allows drainage to occur even in flat areas.

(2) Reopen the filled-in swale section, leaving it again as an open swale.

(3) Add a “Stormceptor” element that will collect sediment and allow flowing stormwater to continue unimpeded through the drainage system to the existing Judith’s Run ditch. Kercher said Stormceptors have been used with great success in Rehoboth Beach in recent years, as they create an area below the normal drainage flow in which sediment (and pollutants) can fall out, separating them from the flowing stormwater above.

The town would perform maintenance work to remove the sediment every six to eight months, requiring a maintenance easement from property owners neighboring the area.

(4) Re-grade ditches as needed to ensure they are properly angled to allow stormwater to drain away.

The whole project is expected to cost several hundred thousand dollars, but the town has already set aside $200,000 for it to get under way.

That would require approval by the town council, which must now wait nearly six months, under legal requirements for public hearings and public input prior to any vote. In the meantime, the town would pursue any necessary permits to get the project going. Once approved, the project would move to the bidding stage, which Kercher said he expected to see a bevy of competing contractors.

Bids would be solicited in a “base, plus alternate plan” format, allowing contractors to bid for core elements of the project (running from Sussex Court to the designated discharge area), as well as portions the town may not be able to afford immediately. A low-enough bid for the whole could be accepted by the town, or it could opt to do only the Sussex Court portion at that time.

The timetable for construction getting under way could be April of 2009, if the project stays on track.

Kercher said the finished project could, conservatively projected, reduce runoff from a 10-year storm by 15 to 20 percent (likely more) and reduce peak runoff (from the most intense part of a 10-year storm) by more than 25 percent.

Savannah’s Landing residents concerned about impacts

Savannah’s Landing residents were present in force on May 31, expressing concern about the possible impacts of the drainage project on their community.

They cited existing concerns about Savannah’s Landing’s ability to handle stormwater flowing into its stormwater ponds without overflowing their banks and causing flooded yards and foundations for properties there, some of which are between the ponds and the eventual destination of the stormwater — the Assawoman Canal.

Jim Tanis, president of the community’s homeowners association, presented a list of requirements he said they would have from the town if the project were to move forward. Among them:

• That the town take responsibility for any additional maintenance needs the changes might cause in Savannah’s Landing. The community already pays about $20,000 per year for maintenance of its stormwater ponds and drainage swales.

• That Savannah’s Landing’s engineering and pond maintenance contractor, Envirotech, be able to review the plan.

• That the town pay whatever is needed to maintain the community’s ponds at the same water level they are now — “Everything you’re going to do will affect our community,” he said.

• That the town create a tax-ditch association for the drainage project area, which would give responsibility for the maintenance of the drainage project to its neighboring home owners, rather than the town.

• That the town create a drainage committee that could make recommendations to the town manager and town council.

Kercher noted that he could not provide estimates on how much additional water Savannah’s Landing might see as a result of the project, since no formal studies have been done to date. Those studies would be pursued after the project gets its go-ahead from the council, he said.

While the runoff from West View may be reduced by the project, the exact impact of conveying it more directly to Savannah’s Landing and the Assawoman Canal is not yet known, he said, emphasizing that the flow of stormwater in the area had always been to that discharge point – just less efficiently so in recent years.

Possible discharge area under federal protection

Some also expressed interest on May 31 in possibly redirecting some of the drainage to a low-lying, forested area of several acres within West View, where it would have more time to drain away without impacting nearby homes.

Kercher said that option had been recommended to the town but that pursuing it was a prospect filled with big hurdles, since the area has been designated as a federally-protected wetland. Touching it would require permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “I’d bet my house we wouldn’t get a permit for that,” he said, dramatically.

He later backtracked somewhat on that statement, expressing a willingness to pursue the idea if the town directs him to, but no enhanced confidence of potential success. He also refuted notions that discharging stormwater to that site would resolve any concerns for Savannah’s Landing residents. “It still drains to the Savannah’s Landing ditch,” he said.

Others recommended the town take the further step of taking the drainage from the proposed system not to Savannah’s Landing but instead straight to the Assawoman Canal.

Kercher assured the residents May 31 that the resulting flow from West View’s Stormceptor into Savannah’s Landing wouldn’t be a dramatic change. “It will not be a river,” he said, emphasizing that the idea of the drainage system proposed was to reduce flow by allowing the stormwater to percolate into the surrounding soil as much as possible.

“In Rehoboth Beach,” he said, “only a little water came out at the end.” The system should slow the flow rate, Kercher said, as well as removing sediment and pollutants from the water as it moves through the Stormceptor. “It’s the only way to ensure clean water,” he added, comparing the Stormceptor to a miniature treatment plant. “It’s about as good as it gets.”

But resident Paul Cullen said he was still concerned about the impact for Savannah’s Landing residents. “If there’s more water, we will have water in our crawlspaces,” he predicted, expressing worries that the result could be dangerous mold.

He said he felt the problem was more one of development than just drainage. “Why do you keep giving out building permits?” he asked. “Stop giving permits to build in a swamp!” he added, to applause from many of those present.

Joe Martinez also had concerns about the impacts to Savannah’s Landing, stating emphatically, “If you proceed, I will hold the town responsible for any related damage to my home and property.” He also received applause for that sentiment.

Resident Fran Warbush said she was concerned about any increase in the amount of water in what she calls a “creek” at the back of her home, citing a water level just 3 to 4 inches below the bank after the May 12 nor’easter.

But, “If it would keep the creek from flooding, that would be helpful,” she said. However, she said of her existing concerns, “We should take care of the problem before we start adding to it.”

Even some West View-area residents had concerns about the project, citing concerns about plans to maintain open swales instead of enclosed drainage pipes.

Rosegate East resident Joe Fedick he was particularly concerned about a possible increase in mosquitoes as a result. He praised the filling in of the swale three years prior, saying it had put an end to standing water in his yard and had even stood up to the May 12 nor’easter, leaving his yard high and dry after just two days.

“You want to take the water from all the way over here, to my place?” he asked Kercher, incredulous. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Kercher again pointed to the difficulty of obtaining an easement in the only other likely path for the community’s stormwater – the large “depression” federal wetlands. “It always flowed that way,” he added of the former ditch near Fedick’s property, “until it was dammed up.”

Resident Joe McCourt said he felt that was a mischaracterization of the project. “The goal is not to restore the flow that was on New Castle,” he said. “This is a significant enhancement of the drainage system in West View. Historically, there has been groundwater in West View, and now you’re going to drain it.”

Responding to questions about restoration of driveways and yards after the project was complete, Kercher said restoration work was always included as part of such a contract and would be taken care of by the contractor. He emphasized that the project would not involve widening the existing ditches but just cleaning them out and re-designing or re-grading them in some cases.

Resident Susan White also inquired about the idea of storm drains, noting that notorious flooding problems in Ocean City, Md., had largely been resolved with such an installation.

Project could be retooled based on public input

Noting the concern expressed by many of the citizens present on May 31, Town Manager Conway Gregory emphasized that the plan presented was just a proposal, with one additional public hearing already planned for June 3. The mayor and town council would have the final say on it, he added.

“We started with a bunch of options,” Gregory continued, “and we believe this is the best option.”

He also emphasized the citizens’ participation in the process, saying, “We are here to find about what your concerns are and address them. It may be your comments require us to decide it’s not the best route to go.”

Gregory later praised the public participation in the May 31 hearing, citing it as a fine example of citizen involvement and civilized discourse toward solving a problem.

A public-safety issue

Regardless of the debate on the best way to handle the drainage problem, resident Joan Gentile Lott emphasized the need to get it done for the sake of public safety.

“This has been going on for a long time,” she said, recalling a flood 10 years ago in which her father had nearly been killed when his truck was swept off the road and into a flooded ditch.

Ongoing problems had led her to ask the town to do something about the hazard, which she reported sometimes leads to 4 inches of water over the road and difficulty for drivers in seeing where the road lies. As a result, the town has been putting out markers to indicate where the road is when high water is anticipated.

“We need to address this life-or-death issue,” she said, “before someone — maybe even a child — is killed.”

Brown again fighting town hall

Closing out public comment at the May 31 hearing, resident Wally Brown ’fessed up to being the guilty party in the filling in of the aforementioned ditch.

“I apologize if I caused problems,” he said, noting that the work was done on his own, private property.

Brown emphasized that he had repeatedly approached the town since buying the property in 2000 about how to deal with the ditch that he says prevented him from being able to use all of his property, since it bisects the back yard. He said he was told by county officials that the swale was an “illegal ditch” and that he could do with it what he wanted.

The town, he said, asked repeatedly for more time to study the issue and was unable to decide on a course of action even after nearly $70,000 was spent on an engineering study. Brown said he delayed action on their account until 2004, at which time he informed them he planned to fill in the ditch, finally moving to do so in June 2005.

“They wanted the ditch where it was. They didn’t want to fix the problem,” he said. “So, I fixed the problem.”

“The county said it should have been filled in before it was developed,” Brown added.

While Kercher insisted that the filling in of the ditch contributes substantially to the flooding problem in West View, Brown rejected blame being placed at his feet. He said he believes that neighboring Mitchell Estates, Meyle Estates and Summerfield contribute to the drainage problem as well. This idea received support from some of his neighbors, including some of those most affected by the flooding in West View.

In addition to opposing the presence of open swales, Brown also repeated on May 31 a common refrain in communication between himself and the town – that the town does not have the right, and should not ask for the right, to gain access to private property for public purposes. (Brown has sued and is currently threatening to again sue the town for requiring him to hook up to its water system, along with the associated easements it required.)

Brown said May 31 that he particularly objects to the town’s requests for a 10-foot-wide “maintenance easement,” which would serve to allow the town to go onto properties that border the drainage swales in order to maintain them.

Instead, Brown proposes a “contract” between the town and the swale-neighboring property owners that would permit the placement of an 18-inch, enclosed drainage pipe along their adjoining property lines.

The sample contract Brown provided May 31 would permit the town to access the pipe for maintenance (with “clean-out stations” every 100 feet in jointed sections and every 200 feet in straight-line sections) and requires the town to inspect the pipe monthly.

The contract would also require the town to restore any landscaping already in place and to acknowledge that it “does not have the right to any private property in excess of the 18 inches necessary for the pipe’s placement, and then only to the extent necessary for the maintenance of the pipe.”

Both Gregory and Kercher indicated May 31 that they might re-evaluate their recommendations on the project in light of the public input. But no action is expected on the project until at least December, which is the soonest the town council could vote to approve it.