Neighbors say project caused flood damage

Heavy summer rainfall left inches of water in basements

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

When Shaly Joseph arrived at her Coyote Run home one day earlier this summer, a torrential downpour had turned her street into a river.

The water was so deep and swift that it blocked access to Joseph’s driveway. She worried that her 5-year-old daughter could not safely wade through the rushing water.

“It was running so fast that she could have slipped and been washed away,” Joseph said.

The June 29 storm dumped several inches of rain in a narrow band across Williston. It washed out roads, uprooted trees and threatened bridges in low-lying areas.

Among those sustaining damages were homeowners in Joseph’s Coyote Run neighborhood and the adjacent South Ridge subdivision, both of which sit high on a hill between U.S. Route 2 and Mountain View Road. Basements in 16 of the neighborhoods’ homes were flooded, according to a survey conducted for the town.

The damages totaled tens of thousands of dollars. And some of the neighbors worry that they will have to disclose the flooding to future buyers, thus driving down property values.

Some South Ridge residents think it was uphill development — not the unusually heavy rain — that caused the flooding. They allege an inadequate stormwater system in Coyote Run led to several inches of water flowing into their basements, which had been bone-dry before the most recent homes in Coyote Run were built. Other neighbors are not so sure, but they want to find out before the next big storm.

“If it’s a development issue, then let’s fix it,” said Jerry Davis, a South Ridge resident whose finished basement sustained an estimated $25,000 in damages when 15 inches of water poured into it. “If it’s a Mother Nature issue, then let’s move on.”

At the urging of Davis and his neighbors, the town of Williston hired a consultant to look into the matter. Based on the consultant’s report, the town has demanded that Coyote Run’s developer, Hergenrother Construction Co. of Colchester, make several stormwater system changes within a month or face fines or a moratorium on future home construction.

A letter sent to Hergenrother earlier this month signed by Public Works Director Neil Boyden and zoning administrator D.K. Johnston states that problems with Coyote Run’s stormwater system “had a direct effect of basement flooding to downstream properties located in the South Ridge development.”

Yet Boyden and Town Planner Lee Nellis said in an interview that it is impossible to determine exactly why so many basements were flooded. When asked how he would apportion the blame, Boyden shrugged and spread his arms.

Both he and Nellis said there were too many variables to know if the flooding was caused by the unusual amount of rainfall in a short time — the National Weather Service says between 4 and 6 inches of rain fell in less than two hours in parts of Williston — or a substandard stormwater system in Coyote Run.

“Even if Hergenrother had already done everything we have asked him to do, it’s possible the flooding may have happened anyway,” Nellis said.


Stopping the flow

Company owner Thomas Hergenrother flatly denies Coyote Run’s stormwater system had anything to do with the flooding in that development and South Ridge. He said the problems clearly were caused by the storm.

“Our development is built to handle a 25-year storm, and it is built to state and local specifications,” he said. “I’m 48 years old, and I’ve never seen a storm like that in my whole life. It just happened to be in my development.”

In fact, Hergenrother asserts that without the stormwater system in Coyote Run, which is uphill from South Ridge, the flooding would have been much worse. During the storm, he said he watched a sheet of water pouring across Mountain View Road above Coyote Run and into the neighborhood.

“No matter what you do, you can’t stop that volume of water,” he said, noting that Coyote Run’s stormwater ponds hold 1.5 million gallons of water.

Nellis said state standards mandate that stormwater systems handle a 25-year storm, which can be expected to occur on average once in that many years. He said that standard equates to about 2 inches of rain. Though there were no official rain gauges in the South Ridge and Coyote Run, the rainfall in the June storm likely totaled more than double that amount.

Coyote Run’s stormwater system includes numerous components: footing drains, which pipe water away from home foundations; catch basins, which drain water flowing in streets; and stormwater detention ponds, which collect water from other parts of the system. The ponds slowly drain into nearby streams and rivers.

The consultant’s report said some of those components did not operate properly or were overwhelmed by the amount of stormwater. The town’s letter to Hergenrother requires him to fix catch basins, saying they are placed too high to collect water flowing past them. The town also wants Hergenrother to ensure that detention ponds do not allow water to back up into footing drains, which the report cited as a source of basement flooding.

Nellis said the requirements concern things that would have been done before Coyote Run was built out. The town, he said, is simply requiring them to be done sooner.


More homes, more water?

In e-mail messages obtained from the town and in interviews, some residents pointed to construction of the second phase of Coyote Run as the cause of their flooding. They note the latest storm marks the second time formerly dry basements in a few homes were flooded since the second phase of construction began.

Five homes were initially built in Coyote Run in the late ‘90s, and then a larger group of homes was constructed over the past couple of years.

“This problem surfaced a year and a half ago when a smaller group of residents took on water,” wrote South Ridge resident Steven Zebertavage in an e-mail message to Boyden, “and now that Coyote Run has added more surface water being directed into the storm drainage system, the problem has grown in size and magnitude.”

While town officials maintain a carefully neutral position on what caused the flooding, they nonetheless want Hergenrother to meet a Sept. 15 deadline for the stormwater system improvements. The developer has been given until Friday to respond to the request.

Hergenrother is unsure if can meet the town’s timeline for making improvements, but he vowed to answer the request by Friday.

“I don’t know if I can meet the time deadline,” he said. “I’m still meeting with the town, so I can’t speculate about that.”

Nor does he know what he will do if neighbors — who have collectively hired an attorney — ask him to pay for damages.

“I haven’t gone there yet,” he said. “The most important thing is to make sure (the flooding) doesn’t happen again.”

Meanwhile, Shaly Joseph, the Coyote Run homeowner, has along with her family finished the hours of cleaning up their flooded basement. They have discarded the computer, books and clothing that were damaged by a foot of water. Now she wonders if the developer and the town will ensure their basement stays dry.

“I think the standards are high enough,” she said. “Our question is who checks to see if they are followed?”