Feeling the Drain

Feeling the Drain

Construction causes problems for Town of Vienna resident.

For Vienna residents like Charlie Gilbert, the only answer to drainage problems would be a drought.

Gilbert lives on Ayr Hill Avenue, on a slight incline. Up the hill, Regent Builders is turning a one-story house with a separate garage into a three-story house with an incorporated garage. According to Gilbert, runoff caused by the new construction floods his yard, driveway and basement whenever there is a heavy rain.

"I’m sitting here looking at my garage, my driveway, my basement being destroyed," said Gilbert. "My property value is being destroyed."

The drainage problem was always present, said Gilbert, and got slightly worse when his neighbors installed a horseshoe driveway that directed stormwater runoff down the hill to his yard. But when the lot on top of the hill was developed, he said, a noticeable amount of water came his way during heavy rain.

Bob Luckett, vice president of Regent Builders, said that the amount of water has been there all along. The water is just more visible now that construction has caused silt to get in it.

"We’re not generating the water," said Luckett. "It’s coming from all different types of sources."

WHATEVER THE source of the water, drainage is a big concern of town residents.

"I definitely get more phone calls about something like that than about anything else," said Mayor M. Jane Seeman. "I would be very happy if we could find something to do (about it)."

"One of the biggest complaints we get in neighborhoods is when we have established neighborhoods and have infill," said town attorney Steven Briglia. "Wherever they go, we have a problem."

Photographs Gilbert took during a recent rainstorm show muddy water pooled in the driveway, and in the grass next to the front porch. The water floods his basement, said Gilbert, and has caused structures to swell, like his neighbor’s driveway, his own retaining wall, and the pavement on Ayr Hill Avenue just outside his house.

"It’s a mess," said Gilbert. "It’s so exasperating."

At a recent Vienna Town Council meeting, Councilmember George Lovelace raised the issue of town residents’ drainage concerns. The town had to focus on the problem, he said.

"Some of the frustration is that we’re pretty much built out," said Briglia. "We don’t have a lot of big subdivisions going in ... when you have an older community and you have infill, you don’t have the tools like you would have in a subdivision plan."

When older subdivisions were built, stormwater codes didn't exist, said Briglia, adding that individual building is still by-right.

"The situation at Ayr Hill is that there is no curb or ditch line on the lower side of the street," said Luckett. "Even before we got there, water would get in neighbors’ yards and driveway."

"The town has certain zoning regulations, including setbacks and height limits, but what really comes into play for drainage issues are setbacks and lot coverage," said Councilmember Edythe Kelleher. Impervious surfaces are only allowed to take up 25 percent of the property, she said.

Town code also says that post-construction runoff levels must be the same as pre-construction levels, said Seeman. "The problem comes during construction," she said. "Surely, we can find something to help these people during construction, because that is when the big mess comes."

Sometimes, builders don’t follow all the rules, said Briglia. "A lot of the issue is just people not using common sense," he said. "People have a building plan, but then a pile of dirt gets in the way."

"We do everything the county requires us to do and then some," said Luckett.

THE DEPARTMENT of Public Works tries to keep the builders in check, said director Dennis King, but he admitted that it was difficult. In the last year, he said, over 400 permits and plans for additions or new houses have come through the system.

Another problem, said Kelleher, is the limits of town authority.

"We don’t have the authority to require stormwater retention facilities on individual lots," said Kelleher. "We only have that under the code of Virginia for subdivisions. The only tool we have is a grading plan for drainage."

With old neighborhoods, said King, drainage is not as well-planned as with newer subdivisions.

When drainage systems are designed, they are based on a ten-year storm event, or the assumption that a certain number of large storms occur every ten years, said King. On several instances this summer, he said, a particularly heavy storm caused water levels to exceed this event. These larger storms coincide with many of the calls about drainage problems, he said, but when it is an issue of heavy rain, there is not much to be done.

"It might take a while, but there is going to be a lot of hearings on this issue before it gets resolved," said Briglia.

"If we can get town staff to put together something that persons who build on individual properties can use as a guide, then we’ve accomplished something," said Lovelace.

For Gilbert, resolution can’t come fast enough. "I shouldn’t have to live like this. It shouldn’t have happened to begin with."