May 2, 2012

Who should pay to clear tree-clogged creek in Oaklawn?

A tangle of twisted trees, some torn out of the ground last month by a tornado, cover a creek that runs behind Deer Lake Estates in Oaklawn.

A tangle of twisted trees, some torn out of the ground last month by a tornado, cover a creek that runs behind Deer Lake Estates in Oaklawn.

That the creek needs to be cleared out is not up for debate.

What is in question is who will do it — and who will pay for it.

The creek is the responsibility of the Deer Lake homeowners association.

But the association, made up of many homeowners who are digging out themselves from the April 14 EF-3 tornado, can’t afford the cleanup, said Bob Dix, secretary of the Oaklawn Improvement District.

Sedgwick County public works director David Spears, whose department helped carry out 1,100 loads of debris after the tornado, said the creek is not the county’s responsibility.

“The language in the plat says it’s the homeowners’ responsibility,” Spears said Wednesday.

Commissioner Jim Skelton knows that’s the case but still thinks the county should help dig out the creek.

“We’re reviewing what is possible here,” Skelton said Wednesday during a tour of the creek.

He said the county should ask itself, “What is the right thing to do?”

A detention pond at the nearby Boeing plant drains into the creek, which runs about a third of a mile to under K-15.

Dix said neither Deer Lake nor Oaklawn can handle the cleanup.

“We’re hoping the county can come in and lend us a hand and take care of this,” Dix said, pointing to a jumble of large trees behind him wedged between the creek’s banks.

Dix and Skelton worry about public safety — children might see the trees as makeshift bridges to climb across — as well as a possible logjam at K-15. Skelton called the situation an environmental hazard.

K-15 has flooded before because of the creek, Dix said.

Dix and Skelton say that not all of the trees and vegetation in the creek are from the tornado. Felled trees from other storms over the years also have made the creek home, not to mention trees that have grown in the creek.

The creek is kind of “out of sight, out of mind” for most people, Dix said.

The worst part of the creek is just west of Oliver and east of K-15 behind houses damaged by the tornado. Dix said it appeared some of the trees were brought to the creek for dumping.

Spears said he has had a public works employee walk the creek.

“It has a lot of trees in it,” Spears said. “It’s pretty well grown up.”

It’s impossible to walk from one side of the creek to the other because of the fallen trees, Spears said.

While the creek is the responsibility of the homeowners association, Spears said, “if the limbs would go downstream to K-15, either the state or us would clean them out once they reached the road right-of-way.”

Spears said he has a crew of four employees who clean streams and creeks that the county is responsible for.

Clearing this creek “would take them away from all of their other regular duties for many months,” he said.

He said he has suggested that the association “do a little piece each year, start at the downstream end and work up. It’s going to be pretty expensive and tough to do it.”

The creek has steep banks, which will make work more difficult than usual, he said.

Skelton said it would virtually take a logging operation to clean up the creek.

Dix said Oaklawn appreciated the county’s help as well as that from the cities of Derby and Haysville, the Kansas Turnpike and the Riverside and Gypsum townships after the tornado.

Spears said all those entities lent manpower and equipment to clean up Oaklawn and southeast Wichita.

Skelton said he is clear what Spears’ opinion is.

“That’s why there are commissioners,” he said.

Skelton talked about the problem at Tuesday’s commission meeting with staff and hopes to drum up support for the cleanup.

Commissioner Dave Unruh said the county needs to be careful about taking on responsibilities of private groups because other areas of the county might not think it’s equitable.

“I think we need to see what happens in a big rain and what gets washed down to K-15,” Unruh said. “If it gets to the road, then we can maybe remove those trees.”

But Unruh said, “I haven’t been convinced we need to go in there with our equipment.”

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