As erosion continues to threaten a Mount Airy home, one council member is chipping away at a city policy that prevents using public funds — an estimated $444,000 — to eradicate the issue.
“I don’t like the policy of the city — it stinks,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said of public stormwater drainage regulations in place since 1996.
“These are old policies that need to be updated,” Brinkley remarked during a meeting Thursday night when Mount Airy officials discussed for the third time this summer a problem at the home of Dan Strauss on Inman Circle.
Stormwater runoff in the area which converges on the Strauss property has caused much of the back yard there to erode down a steep hill, and the house itself also appears headed for collapse toward a drainage channel at the bottom.
“This man has lost sleep for many, many nights (thinking) ‘am I going to be in this house or down the hill?”’ Brinkley said of Strauss, who is suffering from a problem not of his own making.
“It’s just, everything drains right through his property,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said of water spilling onto the Inman Circle site from an area totaling around 29 acres.
“Each member of this board should be losing sleep until this is fixed,” Brinkley added.
However, city officials are limited as to what they can do under existing rules that prevent using public funding to correct problems occurring on private property — which is the case with the erosion on Inman Circle.
Only about 12 percent of the 29-acre drainage area cited, 3.5 acres, is controlled by the municipality, with the rest of the runoff generated from private properties, numbering about 14 in all in the channel involved.
“Expenditures of public money require a public purpose,” City Attorney Hugh Campbell said in response to Brinkley’s contention that the municipality should foot the $444,000 bill, for stream channel restoration — which present policy prohibits.
Earlier, during a July 19 meeting, city Public Works Director Jeff Boyles reported on his examination of the situation and presented multiple remedies. Those included installing natural channel design features with an estimated price range of $300,000 to $500,000.
Boyles also mentioned then that the city government is responsible for maintenance of the drainage system on the public right of way and property owners are for areas outside that realm.
Board members weren’t satisfied with Boyles’ findings and directed that outside expertise be solicited in the matter, “another opinion,” as described by Boyles.
This led to enlisting the services of The Lane Group, an engineering firm in Galax, Virginia, which has worked with Mount Airy on various projects.
Civil engineer Kevin Heath, vice president/project manager of that firm, presented his findings last Thursday night to the commissioners, which bore similarities to those offered by Boyles the month before.
Heath identified three options to address the primary problem: erosion of the drainage channel behind the Strauss residence.
These include installing a culvert large enough to convey stormwater runoff across the property and adding fill material over the top of the pipe to reduce the slope behind the home, at an estimated cost of $115,000; physically reinforcing the slope to make it more stable, estimated at $480,000; and natural stream channel restoration to provide a more stable flow path and repairing slope damage, put at $444,000.
Due to funding implications involving possible state or federal assistance, the commissioners settled on the stream channel work, similar to what has occurred with flood-control measures along Lovills Creek and the Ararat River. Heath said this option for the Inman Circle area is eligible for grant funding, even though private property is involved.
“I think we need to explore this as soon as possible,” Commissioner Yokeley said of applying for grants.
His motion for doing so was approved unanimously. It also included more immediate action to spend $15,000 in city funds to eliminate a small amount of stormwater runoff onto the front of the Strauss property from the Inman Circle right of way. This will occur despite the chief problem being drainage to its rear.
That work will include the construction of asphalt curbing and a stormwater inlet to connect to an existing pipe.
Boyles said most of it can be performed in-house, by city crews, and relatively soon.
Despite backing Yokeley’s motion to seek grant funding for the channelization option, Brinkley argued throughout the discussion that the city government is ultimately responsible.
She believes the drainage problem on Inman Circle is a public issue that should have been corrected years ago. “Now we’ve got to fix this situation that this man is going to lose his house.”
Commissioner Jon Cawley reminded Brinkley at one point about the majority of acreage involved being outside municipal control, hinting that delegating city funding for the solution would establish a troublesome precedent.
“How do we set a policy that’s going to be consistent in the future?” Cawley asked.
“Jon, I have no idea,” replied Brinkley, who said she only knows that the Strauss home stands to be lost — not a matter of if, but when.
“The liability situation is something we need to face,” the South Ward board member said of culpability possibly being assigned to the city of Mount Airy if events continue on the present course.
“Is the city prepared for a lawsuit?” Brinkley asked. “It’s got to be fixed.”
She also questioned Campbell about how the city was able to approve a project last year totaling nearly $300,000 for a facelift on Market Street, which included storm-drainage improvements to address flooding of businesses there.
That project involved a public street and infrastructure, rather than private property where the owners are responsible for improvements, Campbell explained.
“It was in the right of way.”
“Hugh, we need to come up with an answer,” Brinkley told the city attorney regarding funding for the channel work to protect the Strauss property.
“We could buy his house cheaper.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.