Churchill Downs residents blame city of Ann Arbor for basement flooding
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
But since 2000, they've suffered through three major floods — two of them within the last two years — and they blame the city of Ann Arbor for what has become an emotional and financial strain on their family.
"Three specific actions by the city appear to be responsible for the result that our home now serves as the neighborhood retention pond," Ellen Fisher said earlier this week, voicing her frustrations publicly before the Ann Arbor City Council.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
The Fishers live at the corner of Wiltshire Drive and Churchill Drive, just off Scio Church Road, near Interstate-94, on Ann Arbor's west side.
They say residential development north of Scio Church has resulted in additional waters streaming into their neighborhood during bad storms.
They claim those conditions were exacerbated in 1998 when the roads in their neighborhood — in particular, Wiltshire Drive and Churchill Drive — were resurfaced by the city.
"Instead of the older pavement being removed, a new layer of asphalt was merely placed on top of the original surface," Ellen Fisher said. "The result is a road surface significantly higher than the original design, leaving only about two inches of curb."
Instead of water being channeled along the street to the storm sewer as intended, the Fishers say any water deeper than two inches is now forced off the road onto their property and into their home.
"Ironically, after 26 years with no problems, just two years after the road was resurfaced we experienced our first neighborhood flood," Ellen Fisher said.
The third contributor to the problem, Ellen Fisher said, was participating in the city's footing drain disconnection program.
Footing drains are small 4-inch-diameter pipes located near the foundations of houses and are intended to keep rainwater from building up along the foundation or basement walls.
Historically, footing drains were connected to a house lead that carries the footing drain flow and wastewater from the house to the city's sanitary sewer system.
But the city became concerned several years ago that was causing the sanitary sewer system to become overwhelmed during storms, leading to sewage backups in home basements.
And so the city started a program of disconnecting footing drains from house leads and installing sump pumps to move water above ground into the storm water system, no longer channeling that flow to the city's sanitary sewer system.
Since the flood of 2000, Ellen Fisher claims, the city knew that the storm drains in her neighborhood were inadequate in bad storms.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
And then last month's flood happened.
"My house became an island with water all the way around it — five to six inches all around the foundation," Ellen Fisher said. "Storm drain covers near us were blown off, geysers shot five feet into the air, and the street became a rapidly flowing river. Water flooded into our basement through our two city-required egress windows and our mandated sump pump."
According to the city's building permit system, the Fishers had basement egress windows installed in 2008. City officials maintain it's a requirement of Michigan building codes to install egress windows when finishing a home basement.
City officials called the March 15 storm a significant event. Data from the city's rain gauges show rain was falling at a rate of 2.4 inches per hour.
Craig Hupy, the city's public services administrator, said the footing drain disconnections do cause more water to flood the streets, but he called it a marginal difference.
"When we started the FDD program, we were concerned about the additional load on the stormwater system," he said. "And even in the largest events, the modeling we did showed that it was a fraction of an inch — between an eighth and a quarter inch more water in the street — so it's diminutive compared to the water falling in the big events.
"If we didn't have the FDDs in that rain event, we would have had basement backups downstream of them. We didn't have any," Hupy added. "Given the intensity of that storm, she would have had surface flooding whether we had done or not done FDD, so I feel very comfortable saying FDD did not have a material effect on the surface flooding."
A 1947 aerial photo of Ann Arbor shows the historic alignment of the Malletts Creek — today diverted through underground storm pipes — passes through the Fisher property, and so storm waters may be following the natural ground topography to the residence.
But the Fishers aren't the only ones mad. Ellen Fisher turned in a petition signed by 63 neighbors who want the city do something about the flooding problems.
"Although we have a fully functional sump pump, there was no place to pump the water," she said of last month's storm. "This would not have happened but for the city-mandated footing drain disconnection program. The city has attributed this to an act of God.
"Although the storm may have been an act of God, the flooding in my basement was an act of the city for which the city must accept responsibility."
On a short-term basis, she said, she'd like the city to solve the problem of water coming in through the city-mandated sump pump and to cover the costs of cleanup of the recent flood. In the long-term, she said, the city needs to address the flooding in the neighborhood.
Council Member Margie Teall, D-4th Ward, who represents the area of the city where the Fishers live, said it's not the only neighborhood experiencing the same issues.
Teall said she's planning to sit down with Hupy and City Administrator Steve Powers to see if there's anything the city can do about the problem.
"Part of my concern is with the increasing intensity of the storms we've had in the last couple of years. I think the storm events we've had have been very big ones," she said. "There are a couple of other neighbors dealing with the same kinds of issues and I'm in touch with the Fishers and with the city staff to try and see what we can do.
"It's something that no family should have to live through year after year or be afraid of, so we're just investigating what we can do," Teall added.
Teall said she's not sure whether the problems are being exacerbated by the footing drain disconnections, but she thought the Fishers made a strong case.
Lowell Fisher, who appeared before council members in a wheelchair, said the floods are taking a toll on the family.
"The value of our home has plummeted," he said. "We are afraid to restore our basement so we are left with a basement we can't use. Since I can't visit all my children, they travel to visit me. We need our basement to host our children and our grandchildren."
Two years ago, he said, the flood cost them $20,000. He said their claim for $5,000 for cleanup costs alone was denied.
"Nothing was done by the city to prevent another occurrence," he said. "These are not freak storms. There were storms for the past 26 years prior to our flooding problems. It is time for the city to take action."
Hupy said the footing drain disconnections and sump pump installations were approved by the state of Michigan.
"When we were having basement backups, the state came in and did an administrative consent order with us," he said, "and that was the prescribed method for removing it."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.