7/25/18: RAINY-DAY THOUGHTS: COVER THE LAND, CUT DOWN TREES, REDUCE STORMWATER ABSORPTION, INCREASE FLOODING: The Planning Board Must Anticipate, Prevent Problems

flooded
A man walks through flooding near the densely developed oceanfront south of Southern Shores after Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.

Yesterday while returning from errands, I noticed how many sections of South Dogwood Trail were flooded with stormwater. There were pools of standing water in the usual places near the driveways into the country club, but also along the road at Wood Duck Court, 92 S. Dogwood, 138 S. Dogwood . . .

And then I wondered what the road will look like after a storm when there is a bike path/walkway along the length of it, as Mayor Tom Bennett has been advocating for years and the South and East Dogwoods Task Force recommended. (See the Task Force’s final report at https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/170117-FINAL-REPORT-DWTF.pdf.)

If you remove a sizeable number of trees, which act as a barrier during storms, and cover up the ground with a 5-foot-wide concrete path—not the Task Force’s preference, but a possibility—what will happen to South Dogwood Trail and travel along it?

My thought after that was that, if the East Dogwood Trail bike path goes ahead as planned, I will not have to wonder about South Dogwood Trail. I’ll get to see a preview on East Dogwood of what a bike path on South Dogwood Trail might look like.

Town Manager Peter Rascoe reported at the July 10 Town Council meeting that the East Dogwood Trail project is out for bidding this month. According to Mr. Rascoe, property owners on the south side of East Dogwood Trail have been advised about the sidewalk that is to be built in front of their homes and are not opposed to it.

The proposed East Dogwood bike/walking path will be made of concrete, not a pervious material, which would allow rain to pass through it and be absorbed by the ground. Stormwater mitigation should be a factor in the design process, but concrete is definitely what engineers and planners refer to as impervious.

Coincidentally, I took a car for inspection this morning to Outer Banks Automotive on Woods Road, just across U.S. Hwy. 158, and got an earful about flooding from owner Kevin Bradshaw, whom I’ve known since we were teenagers and his father owned the repair business. Ever since the Town of Kitty Hawk built an impervious bicycle path on the west side of Woods Road, Mr. Bradshaw has had flooding in front of his mechanic’s shop—flooding that threatens the vehicles he has parked on his property.

Mr. Bradshaw said he spent four hours yesterday pumping stormwater that had pooled in his driveway to the other side of the road, using his own generator-powered pump. He said he has repeatedly called the Town of Kitty Hawk to complain and has asked why the bike path wasn’t built on the east side, where there is no commercial development. The answer: “We don’t know.”

LAND COVERAGE, TREE REMOVAL

With this latest storm system, Southern Shores property owners have been given a potential preview of our future if our elected officials allow more land coverage to occur—through changes in the calculation of the 30-percent lot coverage requirement (proposed Zoning Text Amendment 18-04); through the construction of impervious bike path/walkways; and through a failure to prevent the development of nonconforming lots, in particular, 50-foot-wide lots, to which one town councilman—architect Chris Nason—has publicly said he has no objection.

You have only to look to the south and north of us to see what happens during storms, such as the one we’ve been weathering the past few days, in densely developed areas.

According to The Outer Banks Voice, the Town of Kitty Hawk has started pumping standing water from roads between the highways into the ocean, thus necessitating the posting of signs to warn people of possible health risks. The water removed from the streets may be contaminated with disease-causing microbes. Certainly, there is an increased chance of contamination, and swimming is not advisable at discharge locations. (Update 7/27: I understand State environmental quality-experts are recommending against swimming in the ocean anywhere because of polluted stormwater runoff. The waters will have to be tested.)

The Voice also has posted a video that shows a deluge of water across N.C. Hwy. 12 in Duck and motorists driving through it. Duck is a charming village, but it’s also one big impervious surface. (It’s never a good idea to drive into flood waters, but the road is open, and, therefore, presumed to be passable.)

In less-dense Southern Shores, clear-cutting of residential lots contributes to standing water in the roads. There currently is no Town Code ordinance to prevent clear-cutting, and the Southern Shores Civic Assn. Architectural Review Board (ARB) only encourages homeowners not to do it. According to its written guidelines, it urges “restraint.”

There was a time when the ARB looked at individual trees on a lot and told the property owners which ones had to remain, but those days are over. I would like to see a more assertive approach taken by the Town.

A perfect example of how the wholesale removal of trees on a lot, in preparation for home construction, creates a flooding hazard exists at 259 North Dogwood Trail, which is close to my mother’s residence. Ever since the property owners clear-cut the lot at this address in order to build their dream house in 2010-2011, stormwater has run off of the sloping front yard into the road, flooding the width of it, i.e., going north and south.

I became acquainted with one of the homeowners and asked him several years ago why he had taken down so many trees. He said he didn’t have a choice, or so he believed, but he clearly did. I think he was misled.

You don’t have to “hug” trees to know that trees contribute to stormwater management. Tree leaves and branches intercept rain, slowing it down as it falls, and rainwater evaporates on trees’ surface areas and their leafy canopies. Further, tree roots contribute to soil stabilization and make the soil more porous and, thus, more water-absorptive. Trees also use rainwater to grow: The bigger the tree, the bigger the thirst.

Recently, someone purchased the vacant lot adjacent to 259 N. Dogwood Trail and clear-cut it, before starting construction of another dream house on another hill. No sooner had construction begun than a “for sale” sign went up at 259. I know that the personal circumstances of the homeowner at 259 have changed since he built his house, but I suspect the encroachment of the new house at 257 also figured into his decision to sell.

These two luxurious soundfront homes—259 N. Dogwood sold in June for $1.6 million—are on top of each other, separated by the mandatory 30 feet of side setbacks and a dividing strand of bushes and trees, and every time it rains, the road in front of them floods.

SWIMMING POOLS

I use the term dream house deliberately because that is the description that I often hear whenever people discuss (argue about) land restrictions. Such a discussion usually evolves into one about individual freedoms, specifically, the right of a property owner to do what he or she would like to do on his or her property without intrusion from the town government.

I think this is unfortunate. It encourages NIMBY thinking—NIMBY meaning “Not in my back yard”—and pits property owners against each other, to the detriment of the community in which all live.

You may have noticed that the SSCA has enhanced the recreational opportunities at Sea Oats Park and more people are using it. Judging from comments made at its July 5 meeting, the SSCA Board has a gazebo in mind for the site and possibly musical events.  Could there be in the works a clubhouse, an indoor pool, and other amenities . . . as long as it’s “not in my back yard”?

I like to think that your back (or front) yard is also mine. If I had a home on Hillcrest Drive or Sea Oats Trail across from, or near, the Sea Oats Park, how would I feel about what the SSCA has done and proposes to do? At what point do the recreational plans of others infringe too much on my quiet enjoyment?

Swimming pools can be a major point of contention between adjacent homeowners and certainly are a source of contention over ZTA 18-04.

If it were enacted as it now is written, ZTA 18-04 would exempt from the maximum allowable 30-percent lot coverage, as set forth in Town Code sec. 36-202(d)(6), 500 square feet of the water area of a swimming pool. (The Beacon has extensively covered this ZTA in both the Planning Board and the Town Council. See July 11 for an update.)

Obviously, if you eliminate 500 square feet of a pool from a calculation of the coverage total, then 500 square feet would be available to a homeowner to cover elsewhere. This would affect stormwater absorption. So, too, would the other exemptions proposed by the ZTA:

*50 percent of pervious materials and turfstone/pavers for driveways and parking areas.

*Gravel walkways

*The outermost 4 feet of eaves

*Open-slatted decks that allow water to penetrate through to pervious material, not exceeding a total of 25 percent of the total footprint area

There’s no getting around the fact that if you subtract for an exemption, you add to the total that may cover the lot elsewhere, in the form of a garage or a wider or deeper house or a larger swimming pool with a gazebo or other structure. A property owner still would be limited by the 30-percent cap and by setbacks, but these restrictions would not prevent expansion of the buildable area, which, in turn, would affect stormwater absorption.

I am encouraged that the newly constituted Town Planning Board, chaired by Glenn Wyder, is sensitive to stormwater concerns and other lot-coverage issues. The Board is currently scheduled to reconsider ZTA 18-04 at its Aug. 20 meeting.

“A pool should not be used as a catch-basin,” Mr. Wyder said during the Planning Board’s earlier deliberation on ZTA 18-04, noting that his swimming pool overflows after a heavy rain.

During the Town Council’s July 10 consideration of the zoning text amendment, Mr. Nason, who is the chief proponent of the lot-coverage change, noted that homeowners can drain their pools of some water before storms.

I wonder if Mr. Nason has any idea how many rental houses in Southern Shores have swimming pools and how unrealistic a suggestion that is.

I am all for dream houses and dream swimming pools, but not at the expense of other homeowners and the community at large. There must be compromise.

PRESERVATION

The common denominator that most of us share in Southern Shores is a desire to maintain the character and appeal of the town, and that means maintaining low-density development, protective trees, and open space.

I have heard from residents throughout Southern Shores this week about flooded roads and flooded yards: on Duck Woods Drive, on Poteskeet Trail in front of the park, before the Juniper Trail bridge, on Ocean Boulevard in the low-traffic area, on Sea Oats Trail, at intersections on N.C. Hwy. 12, north of 4th Avenue, and so it goes.

Each flood merits its own analysis about cause, but I think it’s safe to say that development plays a key role.

We can’t remove the roads. We also can’t control the rain or the saturation capacity of ground that has not been altered by development. But we can exercise some control over lot coverage and the removal of trees.

It is my hope that the new Planning Board will take a long view when it reconsiders ZTA 18-04 and that it will not stop there. The preservation of Southern Shores depends on public servants who rise above NIMBY thinking and political and financial pressures to objectively evaluate the causes of problems such as flooding and to take practical steps to prevent them.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 7/25/18

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