Residents raise concern, seek city assistance for flood water mitigation

Residents raise concern, seek city assistance for flood water mitigation
Steve Jackson’s grandchildren cannot play in his backyard due to stormwater flooding

Although Craig McColskey and his wife, Flo, live a few blocks away from the river, they often joke that they have “waterfront” property. 

The couple along with nine of their neighbors who live in homes lining the west side of Palmer Avenue are encountering severe sunny day flooding from a drainage pipe or trench that runs through a city easement on the rear of their properties. The residents admit that they were flooded out of their homes during Hurricane Irma, which is something they could understand due to the severity of that storm. But what they can’t understand is why the flooding is continuing and getting worse this year, even on days when the skies are blue and there is not a cloud in sight.

“I cringe when it rains. It’s as if we are now the retention pond behind Roosevelt Square,” said Flo McColskey, adding that all she is asking for is that the city accept responsibility and take their flooding problem seriously. All she and her neighbors want is for the City to clean out the drainage pipes and trench that runs through the city easement in the rear of their properties. 

Rebecca Deacon, McColskey’s neighbor who lives near the Roosevelt Mall/Ortega Park, which is currently under construction, is also upset about the situation. As a mom to young children who works from her house, Deacon complained that her backyard is so wet she cannot allow her children to play outdoors. “The ground stays pretty saturated, and then there is a storm drain at the corner of the back yard where water will come out of it, even when it’s not raining. It just fills up my backyard,” she said. “I have to put sandbags at my backdoor if it rains for a couple of days to keep the water from coming into the house. My children can’t play in the backyard because the ground is constantly muddy, even a week after it has rained. I don’t know if it’s coming from the river or its draining from the rest of the neighborhood.”

Flooding in Craig and Flo McColskey’s back yard
Flooding in Craig and Flo McColskey’s back yard

Often the water is so deep at Steve Jackson’s home that his grandchildren’s toys float around his backyard. His nextdoor neighbors, Jenniffer and Andrew Hunt, are trying to sell their home. They have seen at least one contract fall through and several other buyers scared off due to the flooding. To fight the problem, the Hunts have spent thousands of dollars installing new sump pumps in the back yard and putting in fill, said Joseph Larsen, a realtor from LaRosa Realty, which has the listing.

Craig McColskey grew up in the home he and his wife share on Palmer Avenue. His mother moved into the home in 1948 and lived there until her death in 2016, after which he and his wife downsized so they could live in the well-situated bungalow in the neighborhood they love. In the past during a heavy rainstorm, water might build up and fill the trench that runs along the back of his yard, but it always drained out, he said. 

“What really caught my attention is when the water came in on a sunny day like this. This never happened when I grew up as a kid, and it never happened when my mother was here. At that time, I was over here every other day, and I never saw it like this where the water would come up into the backyard for no rhyme or reason. Then today, it had an orange look to it,” he said during an interview on Oct. 10.

Jackson, who lives at 4312 Palmer Ave., said he has lived in his home for 30 years. A former employee of the City’s Public Works Department, Jackson said in the 1960s the city asked each of the homeowners on the west side of Palmer Avenue to render 15 feet in back of their properties to the city as an easement so that drainage could be installed. Of the 10 homes that were contacted, only the owners of 4304 Palmer Avenue, which is located at the corner of Palmer and Euclid, refused the city’s offer. Jackson’s home, as well as the Hunts and McColskeys all had a trench installed behind their homes by the city at that time. Meanwhile all the other homes lining Palmer Avenue to Fair Street, including Deacon’s home, had a drainage pipe installed underground within the easement by the city. 

Jackson has recorded legal documents showing that the nine homes rendered property for the easement, and that it is the city’s responsibility to maintain it. 

“The first house didn’t give them an easement. Lots 2, 3, and 4 wanted an open ditch, but Lots 5 through 10 got a pipe system that ties into Fair Street. From Fair Street it goes south behind the mall and ties into Lakeside Drive where the bridge and creek go into the Ortega River,” Jackson said. “For years, the city would come up here and they would clean it. We’ve been dealing with Chief [Melissa] Long and Bill Joyce and now they are saying the city does not maintain it. They said they don’t do it because the city water doesn’t get in here any longer. But in the 1990s and the 2000s they did maintain it. They would send out guys to clean it out. I am happy to clean out my own open ditch, but the neighbors who have the pipe that runs from here to Fair Street, there is no way they can clean it out. They have grates in the back of every yard and those haven’t been cleaned out in 40 years,” he said. 

Jackson also noted that because the mosquitoes are so “terrible” due to standing water in the trench, his wife is unable to go outside. 

Jackson said he wrote to Long asking if the City’s recent repairs to pipe cave-ins on Euclid Street had been repaired correctly and had anything to do with the problem. 

In an email to Jackson dated Oct. 15, Melissa Long, chief of the City’s Environmental Quality Division said “Sorry, Mr. Jackson, but that is not something the Environmental Quality Division can answer.”

In an email to The Resident dated Oct. 21, City spokeswoman Marjorie Dennis said, “The piping on Euclid Street has zero connection to or impact on the property behind Palmer Avenue as no City of Jacksonville stormwater is directed to the rear-lot drainage system.  The cave-ins that were present along Euclid were completely repaired.”

Dennis also said it is not the City’s responsibility to maintain the drainage pipe or the trench. “Concerning maintenance responsibility, the Department of Public Works does not maintain the rear-lot drainage system. In 1984, the Director of Public Works wrote a letter stating that since no City of Jacksonville stormwater flowed through this location, the City had abandoned all future maintenance responsibility. With no City of Jacksonville stormwater directed to the rear-lot drainage system, the Department of Public Works will not be maintaining the area. The granting of an easement gives the City the right to use for stormwater, but it does not obligate the City to maintain it when the area is not being utilized for City of Jacksonville stormwater. It should be noted that a contributing factor to ‘sogginess’ of the yards is that these yards have elevations present that are lower than some of the extremely high tides that are experienced.”

The drainage trench is full behind Craig and Flo McColskey’s Palmer Avenue home
The drainage trench is full behind Craig and Flo McColskey’s Palmer Avenue home

However, McColskey has a different understanding of what Public Works had agreed to later on.

“My understanding is that back in the late 1990s and early 2000s when my parents still owned the house, Jeff Beck was chief of streets and drainage. They went through this with him, and he finally agreed it was the City’s easement, and they would come out every couple of years and keep the pipes cleared and clean. My understanding is the City actually replaced some of the pipe between Lots 9 and 10,” he said in an email to District 14 City Councilwoman Randle DeFoor. “Let’s be clear. I do not need the city to clean the ditch behind my home, but the water flows back out to the river through the pipes toward Fair Street, behind Publix and into the river at Lakeside. I don’t understand why these City officials can’t understand that it is not the responsibility of the residents to keep these huge concrete pipes cleaned that were installed by the City. All the City has to do is to keep the pipes flushed out every few years and make sure there are not cave ins,” he said, noting that the problem was affecting property values in the neighborhood. 

McColskey also said that since the Roosevelt Mall/Ortega Park project went under construction, flooding has been much worse. The Ortega Park construction plan required two retention ponds to be removed so that a vaulting system with several baffle boxes could be placed underground to handle stormwater and sediment. One of the retention ponds that was removed was located behind Deacon’s home. McColskey also said since the retention ponds have been removed, some of the water accumulating on his property has oil in it and is orange, indicating there is a lot of sediment in it.

The residents have alerted both DeFoor and State Representative Wyman Duggan about the problem and both legislators said they are working to find a solution.

“If it’s a City-owned easement, it is our responsibility to clean it out,” said DeFoor. “I’m going to work with the Public Works Department to ensure that they clean out this ditch as soon as possible. If it is the City’s responsibility, I am going to make sure they do their job,” she said.

Duggan agreed that it was unacceptable that the City was not going to help the residents resolve the situation. “Even if house sales weren’t falling through, they can’t live that way,” he said. 

In working with other residents who complained of sediment spills from the Roosevelt Mall/Ortega Park construction project, Duggan said he learned of a 53-inch drainage line owned by the City that runs behind the mall along Fair Street. The Palmer Avenue drainage pipe connects into it, he said. “That drainage line feeds into the same outfall as the mall and sends water out by the little bridge that the city just rebuilt which goes over the canal and into the Ortega River,” he said, noting that he recently had spoken with Ortega Park site-work contractor Dawn Motes, president of Marietta Sand. “She said she could address the silt and runoff from the mall site but that the City should be aware that there is a city line with no filtration that feeds into the canal at the same exact point. She said there might be runoff into the river from the city line that she can’t fix because it is not on the mall property.”

Duggan said he spoke with John Pappas, head of Public Works about the city line behind the mall, and the fact that Motes had suggested it might be a propitious time for the city to open up the line and put in some silting-control measures. He said he was going to speak again with Pappas about coming out to the Palmer Avenue properties and seeing for himself. “I think the fact that the McColskeys recently saw water coming out of the pipe that is milky colored sounds like some kind of backflow problem,” Duggan said, noting he is unsure whether it has something to do with construction at the mall site. 

“I told the McColskeys that it seems weird to me that water is backing up from the pipe from the river. Craig McColskey said the city was telling him the flooding was happening because water is backing up at high tide. I might believe that if the water weren’t milky colored,” he said.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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