From drainage area to no man's land

Clark County working to sort out who is responsible for maintenance of neglected stormwater facility

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Julia Spellman says she wishes they’d built a standard bioswale.

“Nobody wants to take care of the gravel pit,” she muttered while dragging a hose over from her house, two doors down.

Spellman has lived on Northeast 99th Street near Prairie High School since the 1950s. She and her late husband used to have 5 acres; they sold most of it off, but Spellman still lives on a single acre on the south side of the street.

The developer who bought the rest of the Spellman acreage built 19 homes in a development called Julia’s Garden — plus a superwide, double-lot drainage “pond.” We’ve put “pond” in quotes here because the one-third-acre fenced square on the corner looks more like a stone desert.

Standard Clark County placards calling it a water filtration facility that must be left vegetated seem ironic, because the site is almost always dry as a bone, according to Spellman’s neighbor Terry Perin, who has lived in the area for seven years. The rocky landscape sprouts little but Canadian thistle, blackberry vines, tansy ragwort and other weeds.

Thistle in particular has become the target of Spellman’s wrath — and her garden hose. A few weeks ago the 87-year-old widow wielded a sledgehammer to open the gate to the pond (which was unlocked, Spellman said, so nothing got broken or destroyed; she just needed some extra oomph to pop the latch). She pulled her hose inside and started dousing the featherweight thistle to keep it from blowing throughout the neighborhood. She said she does this nearly every day. Sometimes Perin, whose neighboring arborvitae and yard is already fluffy with flying thistle, helps, too.

Also ironic: Both women live just outside the Julia’s Garden subdivision. This shouldn’t be their problem, but they’re the only ones dealing with it. That was made plain when a Julia’s Garden homeowner walked over to ask what they were doing. Why water the thistle?

Spellman informed him — with an attitude only slightly gentler than her sledgehammer — that she was suppressing the weed, not encouraging it, and that the neighbor’s homeowner association is supposed to be maintaining the pond.

The man, who asked not to be named, replied: “What homeowner association?”

Out of compliance

Carey Armstrong, the county’s clean water program sustainability specialist, said there are roughly 1,000 public stormwater facilities in Clark County and 1,000 private ones.

While the county isn’t responsible for maintaining the private ones, it does inspect them regularly — because without enforcement, things tend not to get done.

“I’ve probably got 50 (private ones) on my desk that I know are out of compliance,” Armstrong said.

The Julia’s Garden facility has been out of compliance since a February inspection, he said.

“That’s an interesting facility,” he added. “I’ve never seen another one like it.”

It might look big and ugly, but the mechanism is simple enough: Stormwater flows off the road and down from local roofs, though underground cartridge vaults that clean the water, and then into the rocky basin where it’s supposed to infiltrate the ground. In the event of a huge flood, the overflowing water will run into outflow pipes and into a nearby stream.

More complicated has been Armstrong’s task: determining who is responsible for actually maintaining the basin in working order. He’s been digging into original plats and planning documents, as well as talking with Clark County’s prosecuting attorney and the subdivision developer.

“The developer is supposed to be responsible for maintaining the stormwater facility,” he said — but only until half the homes in the development were sold.

At that point, there should have been a transition meeting to set up a legal homeowner association, complete with elected officers. That association is then tasked with tending the facility, according to the original plat notes, as well as the Codes, Covenants and Restrictions that every homeowner should have signed.

Gary Sanders of Primelan Properties in Tigard, Ore., and Columbia Community Bank both signed off as developers of the original plat in 2006, Armstrong said.

Armstrong said he tracked down Sanders, who told him a property management company claims to have held the homeowner association transition meeting on a particular date. Armstrong appears skeptical.

“I don’t have any minutes or agenda” of that meeting, he said. “If they can show me there were officers elected, I’m going to have the HOA be responsible.”

Even if no homeowner association was officially formed, he said, the individual homeowners still might wind up holding the bag.

“There may be a letter to the developer and every resident saying, ‘we don’t care who fixes it,’” Armstrong said.

If nothing happens, the matter might wind up with county code enforcement, which can charge as much as $250 per homeowner per day.

But the county has never gotten that hard-knuckled, Armstrong said. More typical is convening an informational meeting, drawing anything from a small handful of concerned folks to a big angry crowd.

“Often, I’ll get a lead group who volunteer their time,” Armstrong said.

If lawsuits ensue, the matter can wind up with a hearings examiner who’ll sort out the responsibilities. But those who want to avoid that can belatedly organize their missing homeowner associations, or just pull together work parties to do their own weedy maintenance. Or, if the work is truly difficult, they can agree to hire a contractor and divvy the bill. In that case, the county is willing to play the bad guy, Armstrong said.

“We’ll keep people notified — this is how much each homeowner owes,” said Armstrong. “I’m OK with that. Let them be mad at the county.”

There’s good news in the case of Spellman’s hated hole in the ground, he said.

“The beauty of that one is that it will be easy and inexpensive to correct.” It’s just a matter of some weeding along the south and western walls, he said.

There’s bad news too: A second drainage basin in Julia’s Garden, tucked away farther to the south of 99th Street, is also out of compliance and in need of repairs.

“That one is more complicated and has been ignored for longer,” Armstrong said. “It’s going to need sediment removed and mowing and maybe the sod replaced. It’s going to be a much bigger expense to fix.”