SEBRING — Friday saw another torrential afternoon downpour filling up retention ponds and swales and, in one case, blowing car dealer “sale” signs down U.S. 27.
Some areas hit by the rains have caught and held water, flooding despite the fact that the rain, as heavy as it was, didn’t last long and shouldn’t have flooded streets. County Engineer Clinton Howerton Jr. agrees: Such rains shouldn’t flood streets, but he said a combination of several years of above-average rain coupled with under-designed drainage in some subdivisions have exposed flaws in drainage that neither the county nor residents can afford to fix on their own.
Sadly, he said, even if affected residents and the county pool resources, they often don’t have enough spare cash to cover immediately needed improvements, let alone long-term projects.
“We get a lot of requests for drainage improvements,” Howerton said.
It’s been especially high since Hurricane Irma, where rains during and immediately following the storm showed how previously functional drainage systems in places like Placid Lakes, Sebring Hills and Sebring Country Estates no longer functioned.
Howerton argues that they never really worked in the first place, because they didn’t have to.
“A lot of subdivisions were built before (there was) a real design for drainage,” Howerton said. “(Residents) suffer because as development continues, a lot of problems are popping up.”
Plus, as more homes get built, he said, more people move into the areas that experience flooding and see it first-hand.
Their houses, raised on mounds to avoid being flooded out, displace water that would flow into their property, sending it to other lots.
Where there are drainage easements behind people’s homes, some residents have filled in the ditches or low spots, which has also backed water up on others’ properties.
Howerton said, right after Irma, he also got a lot more complaints and concerns from residents whose homes were not flooded, but found key roads to their homes covered in water.
It shows how subdivisions’ drainage designs are not adequate, he said, and must be retrofitted.
Fixing the problems takes funding, not just for the actual work, but to study the problem, develop plans, and most of all, Howerton said, to work with water management districts to make sure the plans don’t dump water on someone else.
Then, there’s also the problem of private property versus public easements and right-of-way.
Crystal Lake Club and Silver Fox rural subdivision also experienced drainage problems from Irma and afterward.
Silver Fox residents have had problems with recent rains washing out their roads. They went to talk to county commissioners last Tuesday to ask for help.
However, the county can’t do anything for them at this time, Howerton said: All their roads are either private right-of-ways — where the county is forbidden by law to do improvement — or are not on the county’s maintenance list.
Howerton said fixing drainage will have to include the roads, not only because the two use the same right-of-way but also because fixing one and not the other results in damage to both.
The county has a road maintenance program, with plans to add a certain number of miles of unpaved road per year, but it’s hit a roadblock.
“We’ve had four to five meetings (on it),” Howerton said. “We get to the point of how to fund it, and it stops.”
One solution is the find money in the county budget, but county commissioners have insisted on a balanced budget with no funds from reserves. County Administrator Randy Vosburg has presented them with a balanced five-year capital financial strategy — road and building infrastructure plan — but that meant cutting back on how often roads will get maintained and how many more roads will be added to the annual list.
Another solution would be to ask affected residents to pay for improvements either in cash or through an annual assessment. The residents in Silver Fox who suffer most from bad roads and no drainage don’t have enough among themselve to cover the estimated $300,000-$500,000 price tag, as stated Tuesday by Road and Bridge Director Kyle Green.
Howerton said that leaves what Green suggested on Tuesday: A countywide drainage assessment. That would be a hard sell, Howerton said.
People who buy homes on paved roads, with established stormwater drainage systems, won’t likely agree to be assessed to fix problems for people who bought on unpaved roads with no ditches or gutters, he said.
Silver Fox residents told commissioners how heavy rains in early July standed relatives at their homes. Susan Dillow of Foal Path, a private road cut through her property to provide access for several other residents, said heavy rains on Aug. 3 and a rutted road hampered efforts to drive her husband to the hospital, with two young grandchildren riding with them.
Commissioners said Tuesday they couldn’t do anything at this time, because they can’t work on private roads and the county doesn’t have the money. Residents accused them of not caring about them.
“None of us (in government) want to raise taxes. We don’t want to do that at all,” Howerton said Friday. “We simply don’t have enough (funds) to do anything. It kills us to say we can’t do anything because we don’t have the funds.
“We do care,” Howerton added. “We got into this (work) because we care.”
Some subdivisions don’t have these problems, like Sun ‘N Lake or Spring Lake Improvement Districts, but that’s because they have supervisory boards with authority to levy assessments for roads, drainage and other improvements.
One of the areas that saw now street or home flooding from Irma, Howerton said, was Spring Lake, which recently put in a huge stormwater storage area to the north, with state water management approval.
Howerton said Silver Fox residents could set up something like that. Clarifying what he said on Tuesday, Howerton said one property owner whose land contains a bayhead swamp could apply to the water management district to use it as a water storage area.
Highlands County would not be on the application, but could help him work with state agencies to make it happen.
Also, Howerton said, the landowner would have to hire a private construction firm to build the drainage system, to be reimbursed by the state, because — as he said — the county can’t work on private property.