Residents threaten lawsuit unless drainage issue fixed

Residents threaten lawsuit unless drainage issue fixed
Kevin Conner points to the flooding behind his house due to the development of San Jose Estates.

After suffering standing water and soggy grass in their backyards for nearly a year, two Madrid Avenue residents are taking legal action against the developer of San Jose Estates.

On January 26, David and Lynne Robison joined their next-door neighbor Kevin Conner in hiring a lawyer to notify San Jose Estates LLC, the developer of the small housing development adjacent to their properties, that they intend to take legal action unless he immediately fixes the drainage system on the site of his upcoming development.

For nearly a year, six Madrid Avenue homeowners have been unable to use their backyards due to standing water incurred after the swampy, old-growth forest was cleared from land that abuts their property. David Robison, who holds degrees in civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering, claims San Jose Estate’s drainage system was incorrectly designed and accommodates surface water only.

The backyard of Kevin Conner’s Madrid Avenue home is flooded after a moderate rainstorm due to faulty drainage on the San Jose Estates site.

The backyard of Kevin Conner’s Madrid Avenue home is flooded after a moderate rainstorm due to faulty drainage on the San Jose Estates site.

Robison said the reason his backyard has standing water and spongy grass is because Edwards Engineering and Everett M. Frye, supervising professional engineer for the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD), have failed to take into consideration groundwater bubbling up from artesian springs beneath the site. Edwards Engineering is the firm hired by San Jose Estates LLC to design the drainage system. SJRWMD issued the permit to clear and fill the site.

“They just blew it,” said Robison. “The folks at the St. Johns River Water Management District and the engineer completely missed it. Their whole design is based on surface water, and that’s why their plan has failed. I kept telling them there are artesian springs below the property,” he said.

“What they did was fill in the whole area with soil that is basically impermeable,” Robison continued. “They put a giant plug in the middle of all that ground water, which used to go underneath all our houses and settled two-and-a-half feet lower than our property lines. Before they started building this, we never had soggy property. Even during Hurricane Matthew, we had no standing water. It wasn’t until they filled the land that we had problems. It’s because of hydraulic pressure from Christopher Creek’s high-water table, the springs, and rainwater coming down the hill. When it hits the impervious soil they put in, it causes the water to go into our yards keeping them wet. There is so much hydraulic pressure the water is physically bubbling out of the ground.”

Robison also contends he has seen “tidal movement” in the existing nine-inch drainage pipes placed on the easement behind his house. After recently having his land surveyed, he said he discovered San Jose Estates LLC had encroached on at least two feet of his property while putting in the drainage system.

“We feel we need to notify these people as part of the legal process as soon as possible,” Robison said. “That will put pressure on the St. Johns River Water Management District and on the city. The City of Jacksonville probably won’t issue a building permit if it’s all in litigation. We need to get the legal process started before they pour concrete, because once they do that, in the State of Florida, your chances of success dry up rapidly.” 

Robinson said he believes the underground retention pond installed in the middle of the San Jose Estates’ site, which is called for in the design plan, has been installed two and a half feet higher than the drain pipe used to drive the local water table. He also said the drains in the easement between his property and San Jose Estates lie a foot and a half too high for his property to drain properly.

Other issues he has with the developer include the fact no environmental barriers have been installed between his property and the new development, allowing pollution – oil and gasoline – to sit in the standing water, killing his grass and poisoning his dogs. One dog came down with giardia after accidentally drinking some of the water, said Lynne Robison.

When San Jose Estates raised the level of its property at least four feet higher than the abutters, the Madrid Avenue properties became the lowest points in the area. The lakes that have formed have become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, Robison said.

David Robison’s boot sinks deep in the soggy grass behind his house due to a faulty drainage system installed at San Jose Estates.

David Robison’s boot sinks deep in the soggy grass behind his house due to a faulty drainage system installed at San Jose Estates.

Robison did not appeal the permit with SJRWMD because he believed the city was issuing the permit. By the time he was informed of this by someone at City Hall, the 20-day window for complaints had passed and the damage was done, he said. Fortunately, he learned about SJRWMD’s role in the process in time to appeal San Jose Estate’s request to amend the design of the drainage system, what he calls a “bait and switch.” His complaint caused the developer to decide to stick with the original plan, he said. “The water district never notified any of the abutters of the change in land use,” said Robison. “They advertised it only in a local newspaper in Palatka.”

Conner said he is upset that heavy mud and standing water have soaked more than half of his backyard over several months. He is also unhappy his fence was removed by the San Jose Estates’ contractor when he was not home and not restored on his property line as promised. Without the fence, his dog can no longer run free in his backyard safely, he said. Conner also added that the developer has never contacted him directly, and the site contractor was forced by San Jose Estates LLC to renege on the promise to restore the fence.

Meanwhile, threatening to have the permits pulled, which it usually doesn’t do, the City forced San Jose Estates to install a temporary pump while it built the permanent drainage system, said District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer.

By having a faulty drainage system, Robison estimates San Jose Estates LLC has devalued his home by $50,000 to $60,000. There will always be a flooding issue, he said, and if it is not fixed properly, there will be friction between his Madrid Avenue neighbors and the folks who eventually live in San Jose Estates. “They will leave us with a bunch of lawsuits, and it will be neighbor vs. neighbor,” Robison said.

One solution to the problem is for the developer to raise the backyards of the abutters to the same level as the six much higher San Jose Estates home sites, Robison said. “They need to raise the elevation of all the properties around here and redo the fences,” he said, estimating it might cost between $35,000 and $40,000 per abutting property to fix the situation. “If my property is going to flood, theirs needs to flood as well.”

Robison’s neighbor, James Black, a Madrid Avenue resident for 30 years, said his yard was always dry, even during heavy storms, until the forest was removed. When a previous owner wanted to fill the land 20 years ago, Black said his wife, Sheila, complained to the Army Corps of Engineers, and the project was halted. In the case of San Jose Estates, the trees came down too quickly after he and his wife first spotted the San Jose Estates sign, he said.

“If they do everything legally, I don’t have an argument, even though I hate the fact the trees have been torn down,” he said, noting he is not yet ready to take legal action. “I want to see what their next step is. As far as I’m concerned, the damage is done. If they can put in the drainage system properly and my yard is not wet, then I don’t have an issue.”

Three survey markers in David and Lynne Robison’s backyard show the end of their property line on their side of the easement is in standing water.

Three survey markers in David and Lynne Robison’s backyard show the end of their property line on their side of the easement is in standing water.

Wet history

It was nearly a year ago that San Jose Estates LLC began clearing the six parcels in the Christiana Forest subdivision bordering San Jose Boulevard near Christopher Creek and Nathan Krestul Park.

In April 2016, San Jose Estates LLC owner Feras Mouded, a Fort Caroline realtor, purchased the property, which has been zoned RD-90, low-density residential with 90-foot setbacks for more than 30 years, and was previously considered unbuildable. Tagged by the Jacksonville property appraiser as “jurisdictional wetland,” Mouded purchased the land from Christiana Forest SJ LLC, a limited liability company registered to John R. Reynolds, for $165,000. The property has changed hands four times since 2002 and Reynold’s purchased the property in 2013 for $48,000, according to the Jacksonville property appraiser’s website.

It is Mouded’s intention to build six custom-built, “villa” homes ranging in price from $435,000 to $840,000, according to the San Jose Estates website. The website states, “the lifestyle at San Jose Estates revolves around the world-class amenities at the Epping Forest Yacht &Country Club,” and notes a club membership will be included with the sale of each parcel. Epping Forest Yacht & Country Club lies a short distance north of the development across San Jose Boulevard.

It was SJRWMD and not the City of Jacksonville that gave the go-ahead and permit to develop the site, said Boyer. “The challenge for this property is that it was subdivided into a plat 30 to 50 years ago and the six lots have been zoned residential for a very long time. No one needed to come before the City to get permission for rezoning. This project didn’t go through the planning commission or the city council because it was zoned properly to be used,” she said, adding the City does not get involved in boundary line disputes between individual homeowners.

Because the site was a wetland, SJRWMD issued a permit to fill the site, said Boyer. “They regulate from a water-quality standpoint and are mainly concerned with how filling in the wetland will ultimately impact the water quality. They are not focused on flooding,” she said, noting SJRWMD allowed San Jose Estates LLC to purchase mitigation credits so trees can be planted, or swampland put under conservation in another area of the St. Johns River watershed.

“The City doesn’t pre-empt the water management district. Even though the City regulates road drainage when it comes to flooding, it has always taken the position, historically, that the St. Johns River Water Management District’s permit to fill pre-empts our ability to regulate. So, if they gave them a permit to fill, we couldn’t say no to it,” Boyer explained.

“What the City does is fact check. The engineer of record designs the system, tells the City what the amount of water is that flows from the adjacent properties. He designs a system to accept that and take the water away. The City only verifies his calculations but doesn’t have anyone go out in the field,” Boyer continued. “Ultimately the engineer who turns in the plans to the City is signing off on his professional license that he has reviewed the topography of the area. He is saying that he has done the calculations and has designed a system that will take all the drainage that was previously coming onto the site. The City relies on that engineer’s professional license.”

Developers who fill in wetlands have a responsibility to continue to accept the drainage flow from their property to the extent it flowed prior to pre-construction, Boyer explained. “The developer has an obligation to make this right. You can’t dam up your property and cause flooding on your neighbor’s property that wasn’t there before.”

Prior to construction, Site Engineer Gray Edwards and Jim O’Nan,  a “coordinator of the entitlements of the project,” for San Jose Estates, met with nearby residents in Nathan Krestul Park, spreading out their site plans on a picnic table, said Lynne Robison. “They assured us our property was going to be ‘bone dry’ with this plan,” she said. 

“It broke my heart to see all the trees come down,” Lynne Robison continued. “But we figured if they were to build here, and it wasn’t wetlands, and everything was fine, well, it’s a little disappointing to lose the woods, but that’s the way things go. If they were going to put nice homes here, that would be fine, but this has been a disaster, and we knew it would be from the beginning.”

The new drainage system installed by San Jose Estates developer Feras Mouded didn’t seem to be doing the job in mid-January.

The new drainage system installed by San Jose Estates developer Feras Mouded didn’t seem to be doing the job in mid-January.

Engineer admits groundwater problem

In an January 16 email to The Resident, Frye said “the district has no reason to believe that the permittee does not intend to construct the project as authorized by the district permit.” The district has “numerous legal options” and the “statutory authority” to enforce the permit, he added. “We are committed to resolving any compliance issues related to the district permit.”

Frye also insisted the drainage system design approved in the permit would take care of all future drainage issues.

In response to Robison’s complaints, Frye made a site visit January 18 to investigate the “standing water matter.” In a January 19 email to Robison he wrote that he “empathized” with Robison’s feelings about the “extended length, messy condition, and impact” on his backyard and said he was going to do his “level best to keep the engineer on task and stress to him that the District wants the project to finish and finish soon.”

Frye also wrote that he had met with Edwards at the site and agreed that switching from ADS (plastic-based) pipe to RCP (reinforced concrete) pipe between the bypass inlets might do the trick and that the drainage system should be fixed in several weeks.

“I observed that one section of ADS pipe between two inlets ‘floated’ above ground and severed the connection from the inlet in your backyard area to the outfall pipe, thus causing the standing ankle-deep pool in the area. Once the new RCP pipe is installed and a continuous connection between all the inlets is in place and the area sodded and stabilized, I believe things in your backyard area will improve dramatically. I appreciate the patience you’ve shown thus far and contend that the finish line is in sight,” Frye wrote.

However, in an email to Robison six days later, Frye went further and seemed to agree with Robison’s assessment that groundwater is the trouble. He wrote that he had discussed the matter further with Edwards and decided to install perforated pipe to absorb groundwater into the by-pass collection system. “This is pretty much what you suggested in your email. I’m doing my best to press the engineer to press his client to finish the job,” Frye wrote, noting he had asked the engineer for a “completion timeline.”

Robison said he was happy with Frye’s admission that the groundwater was the problem. “It’s the first time he’s acknowledged the groundwater. I’m glad Everett and the engineer have agreed to address it. We will have to wait and see how it goes,” Robison said.

In a brief telephone interview, Mouded said he “definitely” intends to follow the civil engineer’s guidelines. “It’s no problem. We will do what we have to do for our side in the civil engineering to comply with the permit,” he said, noting he has no firm timeline for when the homes will be built and is “taking it day by day.”

Meanwhile, in an email dated January 24, O’Nan said Mouded had selected the property for development due to its “good” location. He also estimated the drainage problems would be fixed “within a week to 10 days.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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