A 95-home subdivision, Starview Heights, with streets named Galaxy and Saturn, has become of universal flooding concern in the town of Harmony.
With some 60 people in attendance at Harmony Elementary School, 4243 E. Rotamer Road, Janesville, members of the Town of Harmony Board of Supervisors held a two-hour public hearing Wednesday (May 29), outlining several solutions to subdivision flooding, all of which came with weighty price tags.
Town of Harmony Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff Klenz told those in attendance that the town board would make a final decision relative to three options provided by MSA Professional Services, a Madison-based municipal engineering group specializing in stormwater management, which was hired by the board last October.
The town of Harmony would fund the project, would one of the solutions be chosen, Klenz said, by securing a 10- or 20-year loan and passing scheduled principal and interest payments back to homeowners in the subdivision through a “special charge,” which would be added to their property taxes.
Starview Heights is in the town of Harmony and the Milton school district, and adjacent to the city of Janesville.
The option to do nothing also remains on the table, Klenz said.
Problems with flooding began in Starview Heights almost immediately after the subdivision was built in “the late ‘60s, early ‘70,” Klenz said.
Since then, he said, annually, five or six houses get water in basements.
“In 1996, on the corner of Saturn and Galaxy, a house flooded until the point that it had to be razed,” Klenz said.
In February of 2018, he said, flooding trouble began when, by his estimate, six inches of rain fell onto frozen ground.
In a follow-up interview, Klenz told the Milton Courier that 2018 was among the worst years for flooding, but 2013 also produced high amounts of water.
“It usually happens when we get more that three inches of rain in a short amount of time,” he said.
After several discussions with county officials, Klenz said, MSA was hired to help develop a solution.
Using today’s standards, the subdivision would likely never have been built, he and two MSA representatives, Senior Water Resource Engineer Erik Sorensen and Team Leader Bradley Reents, said.
Drainage ditches and culverts existing within the subdivision are, in many cases, not deep, large or pitched enough to properly carry water from yards and streets. Once in the ditches, water travels slowly, and has nowhere to go, Sorensen said.
Homes in the subdivision have private septic systems, making standing water in and traveling through yards of particular concern to Rock County health department officials, Klenz and town attorney, Mike Oellerich of Janesville-based Nowlan and Mouat, LLP, said. As septic systems fail, a potential for that home’s annexation into the city of Janesville exists, as officials from both agencies, the city and county, work to create more modern sewer system-driven solutions.
Annexation is expensive, Klenz said, adding that taxes for that homeowner would go up and perhaps even double.
“The first thing they will do is lower the street and put in curb and gutter. That’s your responsibility,” Klenz said. He estimated the cost at about $10,000 per household.
While costs associated with the town-proposed solutions carry price tags between $300,000 and $600,000, those options are less expensive than annexation, Klenz said.
Klenz is a resident of Starview Heights.
Annexations are restricted such that an isolated home within the interior of the subdivision, considered “an island,” cannot be individually annexed, Oellerich said, but homes on the periphery of the subdivision can be, which creates a pathway into the subdivision, making it possible for more homes to be annexed as sewer lines are placed and septic systems fail.
When that might occur depends largely on when area septic systems fail, Oellerich said.
“If you could tell me when your septic system will fail, you would know better,” he said.
East or West
Sorensen and Reents shared information from a hydrology study MSA conducted, showing land contours, soils and the associated drainage systems already in place.
Runoff water from a neighboring 85-acre farm, owned by Helen Campion, is also contributing to stormwater flowing into the subdivision’s underperforming drainage ditches and culverts.
According to Sorensen, a first step to finding a solution is whether homeowners would like to see water drain to the east of the subdivision or to the west.
Ditches move water and detention basins hold water, Sorensen said.
Draining west would require the purchase of land from the Campions for use as a detention pond. The need for land acquisition increases the cost of that option, Sorensen said. He suggested a shared arrangement between the Campions and the subdivision residents to help mitigate the cost. The basin would be valuable to the Campions would they decide to develop their land, he said.
Water in detention ponds also needs a place to go so that water does not back up and flood other areas, Sorensen said. Going west, water would leave the proposed detention pond through ditches to a culvert stub already in place on the subdivision’s southwestern side, and then go into Janesville’s stormwater system.
When draining to the east, a detention pond is also required, but the town of Harmony owns parkland within the subdivision, Saturn Park, that could potentially be used for that purpose, Sorensen said. Water traveling east would next be taken by pipe to “greenway” owned by the city of Janesville. The greenway is situated between the subdivision and Harmony Elementary School.
Detention ponds would be required with either plan because the city of Janesville has asked for water traveling ultimately into their system to be “slowed,” Sorensen said.
“The city is concerned about accepting more water into the Rotamer system, so they want us to build a detention basin to hold back the flow,” Sorensen said.
“The city of Janesville believes their system has more capacity to the east,” Sorensen said.
Ponds in the subdivision would fill during rain events and look dry during other times of the year. The area would likely grow tall grass and stay “soggy,” Sorensen said.
Costs associated with underground piping as opposed to open ditches were also included within proposed options.
After the work is done, roads will be “recoated,” Klenz said. Those costs were not included in the project estimates.
The Bank of Milton offered the best loan opportunities for funding the project, Harmony Town Clerk Tim Tollefson said. Costs associated with financing a loan include a 10-year option, at an interest percentage rate of 3.6, which would essentially give each homeowner a special charge of $100 on each $100,000 borrowed. For example, he said, if the town borrowed $300,000, each homeowner would see a special assessment of $300 annually placed on their property tax bill for 10 years.
Looking at a 20-year loan, Tollefson said, the special charge would look more like $78 per $100,000 of loan value. Interest rates between loans varied, and change daily, he said.
Several posters as provided by MSA were on display during the hearing. Residents were invited to review the materials in both poster and handout form, and ask questions. Maps and posters would also be placed on the town’s website at a future date, Tollefson said.
Proposals would not be placed for discussion or action on the town’s next agenda in June, Klenz said, to give residents time to give board members feedback. If the board can gain enough input from residents, he said, a board decision could be made as early as July. He anticipated that work on the project, if approved, would not begin this year. A special assessment to subdivision homeowners to cover the cost of the approximately $24,000, spent for the MSA study, would be forthcoming whether the project is approved or not, he added. As a resident of the subdivision, he said, he planned to abstain from voting on the issue.
Town board supervisors in attendance included: Bill Barlass, Matt McNall and John Paulson.
Town Board Supervisor Don Quarterman was not in attendance.
The Town of Harmony website is found here: townofharmony.com.
Questions and Comments
Several commenters wondered about the possibility of restoring or creating a berm between portions of the subdivision and its adjacent neighbors.
Oellerich and Reents cautioned against such options due to issues of liability that could arise if changes made by the town and subdivision would cause flooding on adjacent properties.
Some remembered a berm that had previously been in existence, but, according to former Harmony Town Board Chairman John Bergman, who lives near the subdivision, the berm formed naturally at the base of a row of trees and was never intentionally placed as part of a stormwater management system. A homeowner had subsequently removed the trees and berm, he said.
A commenter wondered if doing nothing might not be the best option, suggesting that, in time, no matter what they did, the city of Janesville would ultimately step in through annexation.
“Annexation costs more than these (town proposed) solutions,” a commenter said, adding: “We are all in this together.”
Others said they saw a pressing need for a more immediate solution, citing uncertainty about future annexations and associated costs.
Some voiced frustration with having to shoulder the costs of the solution without help from neighbors whom they saw, they said, as contributors to their runoff problems.
A resident asked: “Whose responsibility is it to pay for this? We are taxpayers, so why are we alone?” She suggested residents might need a lawyer.
Runoff from the Campion farmland was cited as a contributing factor, with many suggesting that community-driven efforts to guide water would in essence be paying for the Campion property to become more easily developed.
Said Dennis Campion: “We are not here to make money. We are just farming the field. We are not subdividing it or selling it. We didn’t create this problem. We are here to help.”
One commenter suggested the town might purchase the needed area as parkland and green space to buffer water flow and protect against future development.
Responding to a question about grants, Reents said they were available, but also highly competitive, with stipulations such as property values, sometimes associated.