By Lee Hughes
Staff Reporter 

Terrace Heights residents take engineers to task

Homeowners: mitigating flooded basements and crawlspaces is county responsibility

 

Last updated 6/13/2019 at 1:54pm

Terrace Heights resident Duke Hammond had heard enough.

“I think this is a crock of crap,” he told Spokane County engineering officials standing before a group of about 23 of his neighbors at a raucous Wednesday, June 5, public meeting at Snowden Elementary School.

Hammond’s comment underscored the evident and palpable anger and frustration coming from neighborhood residents who have, to one degree or another, been fighting groundwater intrusion into the basements and crawl spaces of many of their homes since they were built in 2004.

The county was there to make a deal — an “initial offer” — to mitigate the flooding by building a pressurized drainage system at an estimated cost of $350,000. The system, engineers said, would push the water away from homes and into an existing retention pond.

Hammond and his neighbors were not happy that the county was them to split the cost. With 81 lots in the neighborhood, the total cost per lot would be $4,321, half of which each homeowner would repay via a separate line item on their property taxes.


Areas of the West Plains have a notoriously high water table due to the impervious layer of rock sitting just beneath the surface. As a result, snowmelt and stormwater have no place to go.

It turns out that this particular development, located in the northwest intersection of West Richland and South Fruitvale roads just south of the Interstate 90 Medical Lake interchange, is especially prone to flooding.

There was plenty of evidence of problems from the beginning of the development.

Residents who bought their homes new from the developer were forced to mitigate undisclosed flooding issues they claim the developer and county were aware of, variously using swales, French drain systems, sump pumps and other methods to keep groundwater from entering their homes.

For some the flooding has since grown worse as residential development has increased in the area.

Ken Chapman, one of the first to purchase a home in the 2004 development, said in a telephone interview that he noticed groundwater issues right away. The developer worked with him to make it right, even when it was wrong (contractors were shut down twice by the county for improper work, according to Chapman).

He eventually ended up with what has become the go-to household flood control solution in the neighborhood— a sump pump.

Initially, his pump was only needed on occasion during the winter months. But his pump began kicking in more often as surrounding development increased. Now it turns on regularly — even in August, he said.

“The old-timers say this whole area used to a one big swamp,” Chapman noted.

Chapman wasn’t alone as a new homebuyer. Hammond did his due diligence before he bought his home, also in 2004.

“We had it inspected,” he said. “And the inspector said, ‘It’s awfully moist down in your crawlspace.’”

The developer told Hammond that there had been a waterline break during construction. He was assured that it would dry up.

It’s now Hammond’s contention that they lied to him.

“And now I’m faced with this,” he said of the county’s project and cost sharing proposal. “I’m being asked to pay money for something that I should have known about, or there should not have been a house built there in the first place.”


Many, but not all of the homes in the neighborhood now have sump pumps that pipe groundwater from sump pits situated in yards to the gutter, where it then flows into the county storm drainage system, eventually ending up in a nearby retention pond.

The developer early on installed some of the pumps like Chapman’s as groundwater issues became apparent to new homeowners. Others were installed later, after homes were re-sold to unsuspecting buyers.

Terry Horne purchased her home from the original owner in July 2016. The seller’s disclosure said nothing about flooding issues in either the home or neighborhood.

The following January, Horne stepped into her basement — and into three inches of standing water.

“I couldn’t figure out what happened,” she said.

She eventually realized the water wasn’t coming from her plumbing, but from the ground.

So Horne installed a sump pump system too. Still, her basement flooded again the following November.

The neighborhood streets become an extra-thick sheet of ice during the winter from snowmelt with an added layer of frozen sump pump water.

But the shallow water table and groundwater intrusion is a problem for the county as well.

According to Matt Zarecor, assistant Spokane County engineer, the roadway was underbuilt by the developer; groundwater that floods basements also percolates up through the asphalt, which is now falling apart.

The discharge of sump pump water into the street only worsens the issue.

The news of the proposed solution and its cost was met with a resounding and near unanimous groan of disbelief from meeting attendees. Residents expressed skepticism, flatly rejecting the county proposal.

Then they quickly began poking holes in the proposed solution.

The county fix involves installing a two-inch pipe on each side of neighborhood streets using horizontal directional drilling methods rather than more intrusive — and expensive — open trench construction.

Individual sump pump discharge pipes would then be connected to the new two-inch line, and water would be pushed to the existing retention pond via a system pressurized by existing residential sump pumps, county engineers explained.

Neither the use of private sump pumps to pressurize the system, nor the cost went over well with residents.

Some referred to the cost-sharing idea as an additional tax.

Others took exception to the county proposing a system that relies on private sump pumps to function.

Concerns ranged from the small size of the pipe, to the chance that it might either become plugged, or fail in the event of a power outage.

“If it starts backing up then everybody floods,” Chapman pointed out.

Engineers noted that check valves would be installed to avoid back-flooding.

Others criticized the lack of additional options at a meeting advertised by the county as a discussion of options.

“Where’s our say in the actual fix? I want option A, not option B. I want an option where my home isn’t being used as mechanical means,” Horne said in reference to the use of private sump pumps for pressurization.

Someone noted that not everyone in the neighborhood had flooding issues, and would be unlikely to agree to pay for mitigation of a problem they didn’t have. Some homes were rentals, another pointed out.

Did that mean the cost, instead of being spread across 81 lots, would only fall on a few, and thus increase the per-lot cost for those requiring flood mitigation, another asked?

Overall, residents took exception to the fact that there were no other options, but rather a single system, a single price tag, and a single option to pay for a system that relied on their individual sump pumps to function.

The opinion of a majority of residents at the meeting was that the entire cost of mitigation should be the county’s, claiming the county should never have allowed homes to be built there in the first place, let alone homes with basements.

Zarecor attempted to refocus the meeting as residents’ ire grew.

“We are where we are today, and I would like to try and find a solution with you folks,” he said, noting that he was willing to share in the cost, but also didn’t believe it was the county’s responsibility alone.

Zarecor expressed confidence in the proposed drainage system, noting that if it didn’t work, “the exposure would be on our end at that point,” putting the county on the hook to find another solution at its expense.

The meeting concluded with a strong rejection of the county’s offer, and reassurances from Zarecor and his boss, County Engineer Chad Coles, who said little during the meeting, to relay the residents’ position to county commissioners, who ultimately had the final decision.


“If I’m told 100 percent, I’ll go 100 percent,” Zarecor said of the cost-sharing proposal.

He expressed disappointment and perhaps some exasperation at the meeting’s results, and the amount of distrust of the proposed solution by those in attendance.

“I’m a professional,” he said.

Meanwhile, not more than two blocks away from where water has been flooding basements and crawlspaces for 15 years, yet another residential development is under construction, where stormwater will be directed to a different retention pond, according to Zarecor.


But, engineers admit, they don’t know where that water goes once it seeps into the ground between the surface and the impervious rock below.

Lee Hughes can be reached at lee@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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