New legislation to alleviate flooding inspired by San Jose development

For many residents of the historic districts, the devastation experienced from Hurricane Irma’s floodwaters was a wake-up call also heard by City of Jacksonville officials and Council representatives.

            Members of the Storm Resiliency and Infrastructure Development Review Committee, an ad hoc advisory group established by Mayor Lenny Curry and City Council President Aaron Bowman, have worked diligently to write legislation amending the Floodplain Management Ordinance and City’s zoning code, and revising the Planning Department’s Red Book to improve both the maintenance and preservation of wetlands and floodplains, drainage and stormwater requirements to aid in the resiliency of the St. Johns River and Duval County.

            Led by Committee Chair Sam Mousa, former chief administrative officer under Curry, and Vice Chair Lori Boyer, former District 5 Councilwoman, Ordinance 2019-331 was filed with the City Council on May 8 before both left office and underwent its first public hearing May 28.

            Several elements addressed in the legislation, which amends Chapter 652 of the City’s Floodplain Management Ordinance, came as a response to the flooding ordeal suffered by residents in the Christiana Forest subdivision, adjacent to the San Jose Estates development on San Jose Boulevard, said Boyer, noting the new rules will apply to all of Duval County.

 After suffering from standing water and soggy grass in their back yards for nearly two years, property owners from two neighboring residences filed a lawsuit Oct. 23, 2018 against the developer of San Jose Estates LLC seeking compensation to cover damage to their properties due to the developer’s apparent refusal to properly fix a faulty stormwater drainage system on six parcels of land fronting San Jose Boulevard.

Drainage addressed in new bill

Five aspects of the new legislation address resident complaints Boyer received about the development of the San Jose subdivision.

First, it expands the survey area considered when designing drainage systems so that they will handle all water flowing onto the site from adjacent properties. “When you design a retention area, the requirement has always been that you can’t impede natural flow,” said Boyer. “Now it will be that when you design a drainage system, it has to accept all the offsite drainage coming from other properties that it would have accepted historically. The post-development condition has to be the same as the pre-development condition for the external properties,” she said. “This provision states when you are designing the drainage system, you need to look at a bigger surrounding area, not just the immediate adjacent boundaries.”

Second, it addresses the time frame for the completion of the installation of the drainage system and the required maintenance of drainage (MOD) plan. “It’s not just a question of whether the drainage system will work, but the amount of time spent from the time developers start making a mess by taking down trees and filling in the land to the time the drainage system in place and working. Now you will have to provide upfront a plan as to how you are going to maintain an adequate drainage system for the surrounding area during the time of construction,” Boyer said.

Third, developers will either be required to use A-3 type of soil, which is often used in road construction, or pay for a soil permeability study. “You can’t fill with muck, clay or soil that doesn’t drain well and impacts the quality and the flow of water onto neighboring properties. You either use A-3 or you prove to us the kind of soil you are using won’t impact the groundwater flow on adjacent properties,” Boyer said. “We couldn’t say anything about what happened at San Jose Estates because we had no regulation that said this is bad filler. We just allowed fill.”

Fourth, the new legislation views the “10-set,” the site development approval permit, differently if the site lies in a floodplain. Currently, the 10-set has a five-year life span, while the floodplain permit lasts only 180 days. The new legislation treats the 10-set permit as the floodplain permit, causing it to expire within 180 days.

“You can get an extension, but what this means is if you are doing construction in a flood plain, you need to get it done, or you will have to come back for an extension and explain to the City why it is not done,” Boyer said. “It recognizes that a floodplain is a lot more sensitive site than an upland area. Developments in the floodplain have a more direct impact on the neighbors than if you build somewhere else. This way, the City has a tool, a way to address interim challenges,” she said, adding an inspection report will be required every six months to determine if the work is ongoing or abandoned, and whether maintenance, drainage or other issues need to be addressed.

Fifth, the committee plans to install new rules for tree removal on newly developed sites once it receives final results of a federally funded independent review of Jacksonville’s urban canopy and its effect on stormwater and water quality. Changes in the tree regulations will be added to the Planning Department’s Red Book, she said. “If you take out a bunch of cypress trees, for example, we want to know if there is a formula for how much water the cypress trees absorbed,” Boyer said. “If the trees are not going to be there, then that has to be considered in whatever design of mitigation you are going to do. There are many more things the committee is doing, but these are some ways we are addressing the questions and concerns that I saw raised by the adjacent neighbors at San Jose Estates,” Boyer said.

Ordinance 2019-331 requires new construction or extensive renovations in a floodplain to be two feet above base elevation instead of the present standard, one foot. It also establishes a 25-foot setback for construction from floodways located on the FEMA map.

“If you are in San Marco or Riverside and you tear down an old house, you can’t build the new one at grade if you are in a floodplain on a slab,” said Boyer, noting new homes will need to be raised up from the site. “We want to make sure over time – because these houses don’t just exist for 20 years but more like 50 to 100 years – as we experience flood events and tidal increases, the homes and businesses won’t flood,” she said.

Also, because floodways are channels where water runs out during storms, Boyer said it is important they remain unobstructed, hence the new 25-foot setback restriction to ensure breathing room on either side of the floodway. “Our goal is not to prevent the land from flooding as much as it is to make sure the people are safe,” she said. “What we are talking about is new construction or demolition and reconstruction. We are not asking people to raze their existing homes.”

Zoning changes

In another bill, which will amend the City’s zoning code, the committee has drafted legislation to establish impervious surface standards for development, which will regulate the amount of land covered by structures and parking lots that make it difficult for water to soak through. Currently, the City only regulates the amount of land covered by buildings and does not care whether property owners pave the entire site. “We will be like Jacksonville Beach, Atlantic Beach and St. Johns County – everyone else,” Boyer said. “The importance of the impervious surface standard is not to tell somebody they can’t build a patio. It is to make sure when the drainage system for that property is designed, it will be designed as if the entire impervious surface coverage was built out.

“The standard is that you can cover 80% of your property with stuff that can’t drain,” Boyer continued. “When the first house goes into a subdivision, you are only covering 45% with the driveway, sidewalk, and house and patio, but the drainage system for that subdivision has to be designed to cover 80%. We want the drainage to be overbuilt because we recognize that over time people are going to come in and add a summer kitchen. Whether it’s a commercial property and they build it in the beginning or a development that is done in phases, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to make sure they have a system designed that serves the whole parcel. We want to have global standards to make sure the design matches up with reality.”

Although the committee received “good information” from the Army Corps of Engineers and Jacobs Engineering, a firm hired by the Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) to study the impact of tidal increases and sea-level rise on JEA infrastructure, it was unable to resolve bulkhead heights, drainage and outfall heights for city infrastructure. Boyer said the Public Works Department will distribute an RFP (request for proposal) to hire an engineering/design firm to help.

“We just completed the new bulkhead in Riverfront Park and part of Sam Mousa’s comments in the meeting were that we should actually – right now while the concrete is fresh – add an extra portion to it because two years from now we will probably have to rebuild the whole bulkhead. But what height do we add to it? One foot? Two feet? We realized we really need more information.

“One of the things the committee has been very sensitive to is that a lot of these measures increase the cost of construction and the cost of homes,” she continued. “While we don’t want to make things unaffordable, we are trying to protect public health and safety. There is a positive benefit to all this, which is that these regulatory changes get us FEMA points on a scoring system – the CRS (Community Rating System). FEMA rates communities based on their regulations, and the rating gets you a discount on your flood insurance premium. We believe all these things will increase the available discount to property owners. We hope we are not only offsetting the increase in costs, but in the end making it less expensive for the property owner, because flood insurance is paid every year while the costs of construction are paid only once.”

By Marcia Hodgson

Resident Community News

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