Residents take legal aim against developer

Residents take legal aim against developer
Standing in Kevin Conner’s backyard, David Robison points out that cattails and other plants, which thrive in soggy ground, can be seen on the abutter’s side of the property line. The new wooden fence, which was put up recently by the developer of San Jose Estates and divides the properties, sits near the disputed drainage system.

Even though fences are supposed to make good neighbors, the new wooden barrier recently erected along the property line between San Jose Estates and adjacent homes in the Christiana Forest subdivision has not helped to quiet tensions between the developers and their abutting homeowners.

On Oct. 23, Madrid Avenue homeowners Kevin Conner and his next-door neighbors, David and Lynne Robison, filed a lawsuit in Duval County’s Fourth Judicial Circuit Court against San Jose Estates LLC, a limited liability company owned by Feras Mouded, a Fort Caroline realtor, according to Conner. He and the Robisons said they are seeking at least $35,000 apiece to cover damage to their properties, attorney’s fees, and other costs related to the legal action.

After suffering from standing water and soggy grass in their backyards for nearly two years, Conner and Robison said they have decided to turn to the courts to seek compensation for water damage to their properties caused by the developer’s apparent refusal to properly fix a faulty stormwater drainage system on the six parcels he owns, which front San Jose Boulevard.

On Oct. 1, Robison wrote an email to inform St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) officials, Everett M. Frye, supervising professional engineer, and Allen Baggett, compliance director, that Mouded and James O’Nan, coordinator of the entitlements of the San Jose Estates’ project, had placed a fence on the property line, indicating “the developer is done working out the groundwater issues.” Robison also advised Frye and Baggett that he and Conner might take legal action.

“Please be advised that we (the abutters to San Jose Estates) have retained legal counsel. The damages are significant and the engineering execution on this project has been substandard,” Robison wrote. He also added that they might consider “requesting that the City of Jacksonville take charge of the fill permit and force compliance to permit conditions or revoke the permit outright if the SJRWMD does not act quickly and decisively. We will also seek compensation for damages incurred.”

The developers of San Jose Estates intend to build a small subdivision comprised of six luxury villa homes ranging in price from $435,000 to $835,000 on 1.88-acres that have been zoned residential for more than 30 years. Prior to their filling in the land, the parcels were taxed as jurisdictional wetlands.

On Dec. 6, 2016, the St. Johns River Water Management District approved San Jose Estates’ request for a permit to construct a stormwater drainage system and fill in the wetlands. Soon after the permit was issued, the developer unloaded “hundreds of tons of impermeable fill dirt in the wetlands” before properly constructing the adequate drainage system that was designed and described in its application and permit, according to legal documents to be filed with the court.

Filling the property caused San Jose Estates to rise four feet above the Madrid Avenue properties. It also caused both the underground water table to rise and the artesian system on the Estates’ property to be diverted, pushing the water that formerly existed in the wetlands onto the abutters’ property and causing their yards to flood. “Lingering odors” created by the “ponding and pooling of wastewater and groundwater, which include a layer of froth and foam” is also an issue, the legal documents stated.

“This is a project of broken promises and incompetence,” said Robison, who also blames SJRWMD for its lack of supervision and oversight when the developers were filling the land. “They’ve trashed our neighborhood and tried to steal the wealth of our neighborhood, and I’m saying, time out. They can’t create a problem like this and blame it on somebody else. We have legitimate concerns and legitimate complaints. It’s not that we are trying to stop this thing. It’s that they have corked the drainage system for the entire neighborhood and this project should never have been allowed,” he said.

Developer-proof remedy

To alleviate the standing water on his property, Robison, a civil engineer, built a concrete wall and filled in his land, raising up his backyard four feet to match the level of San Jose Estate’s property. He has also installed a system of French drains to capture water from his property and divert it to a drain in the rear of his house that San Jose Estates installed.

“I elevated my property so that even if their system fails, it won’t fail on my property anymore. I made my property developer-proof because these guys clearly aren’t paying attention to anything,” Robison said, adding the water table underneath his land is now so high water has seeped through the foundation of his home and warped wooden flooring in his living room. It has also caused black mold to grow between the flooring and the foundation beneath, he said.

Conner said his property is so wet that his backyard can no longer be cut by a lawn maintenance crew. “They said it is too wet and dangerous for their machinery to get stuck back there,” he wrote in an Sept. 20 email addressed to City officials and O’Nan. “My backyard is now almost always completely underwater. It’s getting to the point that I’m having to investigate having a structural engineer come out to make sure my house’s footings have not been affected,” he said.

In his Oct. 1 complaint to SJRWMD, Robison specifically outlined his issues with San Jose Estates and what he believes is the best engineering solution to fix the drainage system. Included among his concerns were a lack of “promised slope stabilization” that has allowed both “slope slump and more” to cover the surface water drainage system; standing water on his land along the property line that causes “excessive bug infestations;” and that his neighbors’ properties still have ponding water well up into their back yards. “The project is causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the neighborhood,” he said.

However, officials at SJRWMD do not seem to share Robison’s concerns.

“The San Jose Estates project has received a District environmental resource permit and is currently under construction. At this phase of construction, the project is in compliance and staff is in regular communication with the owner/developer. District staff conducted a site visit to the project last week to inspect current conditions,” said Teresa Monson, public communications coordinator for SJRWMD in an Oct. 9 email to The Resident.

Monson said once the drainage system has been completed, an “as-built” certification will be submitted for evaluation, and if corrective actions need to be taken to bring the project into compliance, timelines to make those changes will be established. “At this time, the District has no reason to believe that the permittee does not intend to construct the project as authorized by the District permit,” she said.

The homeowners on Madrid Avenue “receive flow from their own neighborhood, not the San Jose Estates project site,” Monson added. “That neighborhood pre-dates District rules, and its system for managing its storm water is unpermitted. The District has shared with the adjacent landowners that a portion of the rear of their properties is floodplain.”

And, in a second email to The Resident, Monson further clarified SJRWMD’s position.

“The Madrid Avenue properties drain toward San Jose Estates – not the other way around,” she wrote. “Stormwater from Christiana Forest drains naturally toward Mr. O’Nan’s property. Mr. O’Nan has provided a bypass system for this off-site run-off, as well as a stormwater system for San Jose Estates, which was in the permitted design,” she said.

Monson also said the professional engineer who inspected the area in late September “observed a couple of small areas of standing water (puddles) near the property line. This area is part of the 100-year floodplain, and it would not be uncommon for it to experience some sogginess from time to time.”

O’Nan did not answer telephone or email queries from The Resident.

Robison said he realized a small corner of his property was in an area considered to be “100-year floodplain,” but said that doesn’t change his issue with San Jose Estates or prevent him from holding SJRWMD responsible for the water problems on his property.

“The pipe that managed the water when it was wetlands was a good two feet lower than my property at that time,” he said, noting he never experienced standing water on his land before San Jose Estates filled in its property. “They can’t push their water onto my property. That’s illegal. The problem is that they bought property with a water problem. It was wetlands and those wetlands were hydraulically linked to the St. Johns River. The water in that area wasn’t draining from our property. That water was there, and the natural motion of the water had to be managed by them.

“They were supposed to build their tank storage system six inches above the water table,” he continued, noting the tank was placed too high and will require at least eight feet of soil to be dug out and the system redone so the water can percolate. “It was supposed to act as a reservoir, but when they came out with the big bulldozers they collapsed all the soil, then they dug it out. The fill they used was impermeable, and it acts like concrete. No water moves now,” Robison explained.

“They can’t say our water flowed onto their property because it was pre-existing. The real problem is they did it wrong, and SJRWMD did not provide the proper oversight to ensure they did it correctly. They damaged the eco-structure of the land so the repair to make sure they do it right will be exorbitant,” he said. “They created the problem. They own the problem, and you can quote me on that.”

Although Robison and Conner have contacted the City several times, there is nothing it can do to resolve the issue, said District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer. “The developer got the permit through the Water Management District to build on property that was already zoned residential, so the City could not say no,” she said.

“I know there are questions about whether the drainage systems were done according to plans, but you can’t stop someone if it’s built in accordance with the permits issued,” Boyer continued. “The City has cited them for code compliance violations on multiple occasions because they let the grass grow and they are not doing anything. The practical side is that whoever invested in it is, I’m sure, not doing well financially as a result of that investment. They are not getting any return on it or selling any properties.

“The unfortunate thing is the real remedy is a private remedy between the property owners,” Boyer said. “Someone has to sue their neighbors. The City doesn’t have a way to step in and do something as the City. When we can, we have engaged, but there’s no open door for us at the moment to do anything.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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