Wake County

In Cary, homeowners worry development is causing flood problems

Tracy Filonena cleans up the flooded Bond Lake waterfront at Bond Park in Cary on Wednesday Aug. 13, 2014. Heavy rains raised the water level in the lake by several feet, flooding some of the low-lying waterfront buildings and picnic benches.
Tracy Filonena cleans up the flooded Bond Lake waterfront at Bond Park in Cary on Wednesday Aug. 13, 2014. Heavy rains raised the water level in the lake by several feet, flooding some of the low-lying waterfront buildings and picnic benches. File photo

After a historic rainstorm damaged his home last July, Tony Arnold collected signatures in his Cary neighborhood in hopes a petition would convince the town to do something about flooding.

One neighbor asked Arnold to come around to the backyard.

“The stream had cut a 16-foot-deep bluff mere feet from the house,” said Arnold, who has lived in the Scottish Hills neighborhood near downtown Cary for 24 years. “You don’t have to go to California to see a house in danger of falling off a cliff.”

Some Cary residents have complained about flooding and drainage issues in recent months, including those who live in Scottish Hills and oppose a plan by Habitat for Humanity of Wake County to build nine homes nearby. They say the development would worsen flooding during heavy rains.

Arnold’s petition, with 18 signatures from nearby homeowners, was submitted in February. It asked the town for a moratorium on development in the area until it conducts a full engineering study near a Swift Creek tributary in the neighborhood.

Such a halt is unlikely, but Arnold said he’s been pleased with the town’s response.

Several houses in Scottish Hills lie in the flood plain for the tributary. The neighborhood was mostly built between the 1970s and 1990s, before Cary passed an ordinance in 2001 prohibiting residential construction in flood plains.

As a result, the town’s oldest homes – most of them inside the Maynard Road loop – are most susceptible to flooding.

Residents are pleading with the town to address flood risks, raising questions about who and what is to blame. Is it the fault of developers who build upstream? The town for allowing the construction and not upgrading its stormwater infrastructure?

Town officials point to a 14 percent uptick in rainfall during the last four years, compounding the problem of where all that water can go.

Last July’s rainstorm yielded about 6.5 inches of rain in 24 hours.

“Based on all of our records, we’ve only had one storm in Cary in the working memory of everyone who works for the town that exceeded the 100-year storm,” said Steve Brown, Cary’s director of water resources. “In July, that thunderstorm was determined to be about a 1,000-year event.”

The town’s most recent comprehensive stormwater and flood plain study was in 2006. Residents say the town’s growth since then has likely rendered the plan obsolete.

Since 2006, Cary has spent $4.15 million on about 20 stormwater projects. Earlier this year, the town agreed to spend $167,000 to upgrade the pipes under a culvert rather than buy a frequently flooded home on Joel Court.

Town rules require developers to make or pay for stormwater engineering improvements that account for all of a project’s runoff.

But state law prohibits public money from being spent to make improvements on private property, which means the town’s response is limited to improving stormwater infrastructure in public rights-of-way.

Now the N.C. General Assembly is weighing further restrictions. A bill that passed the Senate in April and is now in a House committee would prevent towns from enforcing stream buffers larger than those required under state law.

Cary currently requires stream buffers larger than what the state dictates. Town Manager Sean Stegall said if the bill passes, things will get worse for Cary homeowners.

This isn’t the first time Cary has been accused of inadequately responding to flood risks.

David Bowden asked the town in 2009 to buy his house, which he believed was flooding because of town construction along Maynard Road. The town offered to improve drainage facilities near his house, but Bowden apparently refused and painted the words “screwed by the Town of Cary” on his home.

Bowden sued Cary when it said the paint job violated town sign rules, and the case made it as far as the U.S. Court of Appeals. Cary ultimately won, and Bowden died in 2011.

Now more residents are seeking relief.

“I’ve personally lost three feet of backyard from flooding erosion over the past three years,” Anne Dennis, a Trimble Avenue homeowner, wrote in a January email to The News & Observer.

Dennis wrote that if the Habitat project results in more flooding, “it’s up to the individual homeowners to file a civil suit at their own expense against the developer.”

It’s unclear when the Cary Town Council will vote on the Habitat project, which has also sparked debates about affordable housing.

For now, Cary officials say the town can help residents in flood-prone areas to get flood insurance and link them with federal emergency programs.

“We encourage people to call us if they have a problem, because we want to help, we really do,” Brown said. “We can help them apply for grants. The federal government has some authority we don’t have.”

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan