Residents in two troubled southeast Wichita subdivisions could only watch on Sept. 12, 2008, as their basements flooded and backyards turned into swamps during a 10.6-inch downpour.
The rain poured off a field owned by a church just south of the Maple Shade and Brentwood South subdivisions. It hit a line of wood fences, veered away from the path that developers intended and pooled around nearby houses, flooding basements.
The downpour triggered a two-year drainage dispute between property owners, complicated by the
city's lack of regulations.
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The neighborhoods near Webb and Harry still
suffer from surface water problems today.
The soggy conditions combined with fill dirt and clay to create the perfect scenario for the slab foundations of at least five houses to buckle and their walls to crack, homeowners and engineers say.
"A foundation that doesn't settle is pure imagination," said Steve Hunter, a structural engineer working on one of the failing houses. "The earth is constantly moving. Ground is going to expand when it gets wet, then it will dry."
Several factors contributed to the drainage problems:
* City officials and planning commissioners approved the developments without detailed grading plans to account for runoff.
* Homeowners have built fences in the drainage easement, which is located just a few yards outside their back doors.
* Developers have balked at the idea of paying a neighboring church $25,000 for a 20-foot drainage easement on the congregation's property.
The result is a "swamp," Maple Shade residents say, one that never dries as sump pumps flush water from basements.
"When we have a hard rain we have this river running between us, and it never dries out because of that sump pump problem, but there's water those pumps have to get rid of. They're dealing with a lot of undrained water," said Betty Wiens, the 74-year-old widow whose crumbling slab house got a new concrete floor this week.
Contractors estimate it will cost Wiens more than $70,000 to make the 5-year-old house that she bought for $141,000 in 2008 livable.
"It's been like this ever since I've been here," Wiens said. "It's always damp along here. It's just soggy ground, kind of like a swamp."
Metropolitan Area Planning Commission members and city staff gave final approval to the Maple Shade subdivision in June 2001 without requiring a grading plan, even though the city had rules on the books requiring one since October 2000, city records show.
The grading plan could have prevented some of the flooding problems that exist today. It would have set elevations at the corner of each lot and shown how water would drain toward storm sewers or other channels to prevent flooding.
Scott Lindebak, the city's stormwater engineer, wasn't in charge in 2001. But he said that the subdivision was initially platted as only two lots — with no indication it would become the 50-lot subdivision it is today. No grading plans would have been required for only two lots, he said.
But when the zoning changed in 2001, showing plans for one of the lots to become a multifamily subdivision, city officials did not require a grading plan, despite its regulations to the contrary.
Planning commissioners approved the subdivision and the conceptual drainage plan accompanying it in a 10-0 vote.
"One can assume that this development may have been grandfathered from having a Master Grading Plan, because the City does not have a grading plan on file for Maple Shade Addition," Lindebak wrote in response to The Eagle's inquiries.
He later explained that city engineers and officials with the Wichita Area Builders Association formed a committee to address drainage problems with a new grading policy.
That committee's work led to the grading and drainage policy that became effective in October 2000.
"They didn't want to have a bunch of regulations that really cost homeowners a lot of money," he said. "But they recognized there was an issue."
Meanwhile, Maple Shade slipped through with a basic drainage plan that shows where the water is supposed to go.
But the water doesn't go there because no drainage channel was developed in the 20-foot easement that was supposed to carry it.
Instead, that easement sits in backyards and is blocked off by fences, in an area critics say is overbuilt with houses.
To complicate matters, houses were built on several inches of fill soil atop clay that expands as moisture builds, then contracts as it dries, leading to cracks in slab foundations.
The drainage situation came to a head in September 2008, when torrential rains hit the city, flooding houses in Brentwood South and Maple Shade, and leading residents to complain.
An investigation by city officials led them to Maple Shade developer Steve Miller and Christ Community Church, owner of a field just south of the subdivision that drains water toward the houses.
Lindebak said city officials asked for a solution to the drainage problems that summer.
But they have no legal basis to require a solution, since Wichita's subdivision regulations are weaker than those of most of its peers statewide.
A fair price?
Miller and the board of Christ Community Church point fingers at each other for the unresolved drainage issues.
"I've tried to work with the church," Miller said. "What happened was in 2008 they had this field here all disked up and we got a real heavy rain and ... water came over that we're required to account for."
Miller said the flooding created sediment that changed the subdivision's drainage, creating "nuisance water" around several of the houses now suffering structural damage.
Miller said he wants a 20-foot drainage easement on the north edge of the church's property — for free, church officials say — to dig a drainage swale, a wide, shallow ditch, to help pull the runoff away from the Maple Shade houses, along with houses in Brentwood South.
City officials say the swale would have handled the drainage had Miller built it as platted on the subdivision's south edge, rather than building houses to the edge of his property line.
"I approached them and asked them for it, but originally it was $50,000 they were wanting and that's about six or seven times more than the city pays for theirs," Miller said. "It was a little out of line."
Miller has taken a Band-Aid approach to the issue, illegally cutting a hole in the back of a city storm drain inlet — an action Lindebak downplays.
And Miller blames the people who bought houses in his subdivisions for the problem, for constructing fences across the unused drainage easement to obstruct topical water flow.
"So I'm working with them right now to get them to go to a wrought-iron fence so we can get that functioning the way it should," he said.
Don Edwards, the former church board chairman, sees the drainage mess differently.
Edwards said Miller has tried for more than two years to badger church trustees to hand the land over for free.
The most recent time was in November, when Edwards said Miller barged into a weekend church board meeting.
Edwards said the church has unfairly been made the scapegoat for a residential development with a bad drainage plan.
"We didn't know there was any problem until 2008, when we got a call that these houses are flooding and it's our fault," he said.
"We got this panic visit to the pastor. We've got to be at stormwater management on Tuesday because we have a problem. So we went down there and he (Miller) just announced to us that we're going to build a ditch on your ground."
Not without financial compensation for the land, Edwards said.
"We said, 'That's nice. We're not using it right now. We'd be happy to talk to you about some compensation' and he goes, 'No, we're just going to put the ditch in.' I said, 'No, you're not.' "
The reason? Edwards said church members aren't inclined to donate land to a developer who's making money off the new houses — and who has stormed into their board meetings with his demands.
"I think they thought we were a bunch of rubes over here who didn't understand anything about anything, and we'll just build into the easement and then force the drainage over on the other side of the property line," Edwards said.
So the church hired Ken Dannenberg, an attorney with the Wichita firm Martin Pringle, and drew up a proposal to sell the property for $24,668 — $3.25 per square foot.
To date, there's no sale.
"He took his drainage easement and used it for utilities," Edwards said. "What he should have done, these houses should be a good 25 or 30 feet (north). It would have cost him a whole row of houses, and that's what this thing is really all about.
"If I were going to put my finger on what's causing the problem with these patio homes and in Brentwood, it's that these guys never built the drainage they were supposed to build."
But homebuilder Clint Miller has said many factors could have contributed to the problem — though he said he's baffled by the structural damage in the neighborhood.
A report from Allied Laboratories in April 2009, commissioned by Clint Miller, downplays the role of moisture in the failure of one foundation, attributing it instead to the swelling and heaving of clay soil beneath the foundation.
Clint and Steve Miller are brothers.
Engineers hired by Steve Miller have proposed a berm at the property line to cut off and redirect water running off the church's property, according to a Nov. 24 e-mail to Lindebak from Ken Lee, an engineer at Ruggles & Bohm.
But negotiations between Miller and the church are at a standstill, and the city has moved a deadline for a drainage plan from Thanksgiving to March 1.
Lindebak, the city stormwater engineer, said he doesn't have the authority to force a resolution.
It often takes two years or more to get parties to agree on drainage solutions and complete construction.
"The city, by nature, we want to make everyone happy," he said. "But we aren't going to make everybody happy and sometimes it takes two to three years to resolve simple issues."
Lindebak said the city has about $600,000 set aside for "hot spot" flooding projects. But he said that money is typically reserved for projects near major roads or in cases where residents have already spent thousands trying to fix the problem and have exhausted their resources.
"There's always more needs than funding available," he said.
Lindebak has said the drainage could probably be fixed inexpensively with a shallow ditch if the developer had the property to do that.
But, if the stalemate between the church and Miller continues, the developer could elevate fences with a concrete retaining wall to steer runoff toward storm sewer inlets.
The city can't mandate solutions, Lindebak said.
"The only teeth you have is just that people want to do the right thing," he said.
That's the case 90 percent of the time, he said.
"This is the exception rather than the rule."