See today’s related article: “Call for Building Moratorium in Palm Coast Retreats as City Says It’s Already Implementing New Construction Rules.”
Palm Coast had recorded 125 cases of flooded properties as of last week. This week, the number went up to 148, according to Carl Cote, the city’s construction management and engineering division manager, a number almost certain to rise further with today’s projection of severe storms and downpours.
The flooding is a relatively new phenomenon in Palm Coast as the boom in new homes in the city’s older sections–the sections platted of quarter-acre lots by ITT, or so-called “infill” lots–has also taken place on mountains of fill: many builders are opting to build homes much higher than neighboring lots. It’s a flood-prevention measure. It’s also a flood-causing measure for older, neighboring lots, whose water had until then tended to drain into the vacant, lower lots.
Residents have brought their complaints to individual city council members and to the council as a whole, with council members such as Ed Danko, Theresa Pontieri and Cathy Heighter championing the residents’ problems and pushing the administration to address the flooding issues as a top priority, as few matters have been before.
The issue has forced the administration to respond on two fronts. On one, it has rewritten building regulations to ensure that homes don;t vault higher than a certain height. Those regulations go before the council next week. (See: “Call for Building Moratorium in Palm Coast Retreats as City Says It’s Already Implementing New Construction Rules.”) On another front, it has reconfigured its staff assignments and designate a task force devoted to that one issue, with some results but no promises of a certain fix. Melissa Hill, a citizen resource and outreach coordinator in the stormwater division, is the point person and will eventually be dedicated to handling all such stormwater cases.
More recently, the issue has caught on among self-styled “loudmouth” but generally ill-informed and intentionally disruptive activists, among them Alan Lowe, the perennial, and perennially unsuccessful, candidate for city office. They don’t necessarily have flooding problems but their conspiracy theories about the city, such as the ongoing campaign or a “forensic audit,” are always grasping for ridable coattails. Those more stilted voices risk further muddying an already murky political issue for the city, though they appear to have no effect on the staff’s professionalism.
City staffers have visited 75 of the affected properties so far, Cote told the council today. They are hoping to have visited all 148 by the end of January, assuming the tally doesn’t grow much further. “It’s a process but is a priority to us and make that initial contact with the resident,” City Manager Denise Bevan said, with the permitting process now involving a more intense professional review.
Typically, a couple of city representatives go to a property to gather basic information about the flooding. From there, additional staff pull up records of adjacent properties, surveyors go to the property in question and rule out such issues as stormwater problems. Danko asked the logical question: are the visits helping? Are they fixing problems?
“We do don’t necessarily design a fix for some of the existing homeowners,” Cote said. “There are a couple where we were working with the builder of the new home and he made adjustments to his grading to help ensure that his water would stay his property. There was one that was an issue. His water was going on the property and he is fixing that.” The city is having some success either with new builds or with existing homes in identifying issues that may be resolved with some landscaping curbing or by addressing the flow of gutters and drains and other such mechanical fixes. “So we’ve been giving them some recommendation to things that they could do to help alleviate their issue,” Cote said.
The flooding problems have spawned a parallel problem for residents through the very system that Palm Coast uses to address concerns. Palm Coast Connect is the online platform through which residents communicate their concerns and work requests to the city. The city in turn keeps the resident informed through a real-time ticketing system. But once the city considers the matter dealt with, it closes the ticket, with no further comment. There’s been several such cases from residents with flooding concerns. The city has addressed them, then closed their cases, leading many residents to complain that they’re not being heard, or that they’re being dropped.
Pontieri said the city must improve the way it deals with those Palm Coast Connect cases. “When a resident sees that their case is closed, they don’t know what’s going on behind the curtain,” Pontieri said. “So it’s very discouraging. They feel like they’re not getting anywhere. They feel like they’re not getting any traction. They feel like they’re not being listened to. And that is not what we stand for.” She requested that the system be altered in order to keep residents “in the loop at all times” and have the same knowledge as do council members.
Cases do get closed, but only when several cases are open on the same property. “For these infill lots, we’re not necessarily closing them. We’re re-categorizing them, because [residents] may call in and talk about flooding, but they’re more concerned about the water in their swale. They don’t necessarily have infill lot stormwater retainage on their property.”
Pontieri’s request drew strong support from fellow Council member Nick Klufas, on whose first-term watch Palm Coast Connect was approved and implemented. Pontieri, Klufas said, “really struck a chord there where if cases are being closed, the level of communication is even that much more important for residents to understand where exactly in the process they are.” But he stressed that city staffers have been very diligent in addressing the issues.
Cote cautioned that until the administration submits a complete report on all flooding cases in February, by which time it will have collected all the necessary data and completed its analysis, it may seem to some residents as if nothing is happening. But it’s at that February workshop that, based on the report, the council will take the next steps on addressing these flooding issues from a broader, policy-oriented perspective, as opposed to a case-by-case approach.
Meanwhile, Danko said, “I would just ask everyone here to keep in mind, we have a lot of folks that have been affected by this. And that continues obviously to increase and at some point, we’re going to have to take care of those folks in one way or another and offer some support. And I would ask everyone on staff and on this Council, to keep that in their mind and start possibly coming up with suggestions on how we can help those folks in our community that have been affected by this.”
Danko has been repeating that plea almost weekly, at times making–or testing–proposals of his own, such as devising a financial aid system. But for now, beyond the technical fix it has worked out through its building regulations and required its builders to follow, which will help reduce future problems, the city does not have a comprehensive, retroactive fix for existing residents who see their yards turn to ponds after rain events.