Board tells city to buy homes, easements to fix flooding

Public works panel advises Port council to use eminent domain if necessary to clear way for plan that was stymied in 2015

FLOODING ON AUG. 27 turned yards like this one off North Spring Street in Port Washington into lakes and ruined the lower levels of homes in the west-side neighborhood. A plan to solve the flooding problem, which calls for the city to buy easements and houses, was endorsed by the Board of Public Works Tuesday. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

Determined to resolve flooding on the city’s west side, the Port Washington Board of Public Works on Tuesday backed a plan to acquire easements from property owners and buy houses — and use eminent domain to purchase properties from unwilling sellers if necessary — to build a new stormwater management system.

The board voted unanimously to support a motion calling for the city to acquire easements on a handful of properties and purchase two homes on the west side of North Spring Street and one on Crocker Avenue, as well as a portion of the former Simplicity factory parking lot on the east side of Spring Street, and “resolve to use eminent domain if necessary.”

The motion was made and seconded by two of the three aldermen on the board — Mike Gasper and John Sigwart — signaling at least some support on the Common Council to follow through with a flood mitigation plan that was drafted in 2015 but stalled because key property owners were unwilling to cooperate with the city.

“I want to see this fixed, and if that requires eminent domain, I’d probably go for it,” Sigwart said of the power governments have to seize property by paying fair market value for it. 

Flooding on Aug. 27 that devastated parts of a neighborhood from North Spring Street to the west, turning yards into lakes and destroying lower levels of homes, has lent urgency to the need to resolve flooding problems that have struck this area before.

But Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven said engineering a solution is fruitless until key property owners decide to cooperate or the city compels them to.

“Until we have that from key residents —  a willingness to provide easements or a willingness to sell their homes, or until the council is willing to use eminent domain — I don’t want to spend more money on studies,” he said, noting that some of the residents hardest hit by the Aug. 27 flood opposed the mitigation plan in 2015.

Vanden Noven said the city has had  “preliminary contact” with some of the key property owners.

“It wasn’t super promising, but maybe if we can just sit down with them,” he said.

The board’s action comes after residents pleaded with its members to resolve flooding problems. Those pleas continued Tuesday.

“The water came so fast and fierce,” Wendy Mueller, who lives on North Spring Street, told the board. “I haven’t slept yet when it rains. 

“We’ve spent $13,000 and we haven’t even replaced our stuff. Our insurance paid for nothing. We’ve tapped our entire savings.”

The 2015 flood mitigation plan drafted by Stantec Consulting Services Inc. of Mequon essentially calls for a system of culverts to better move water and retention areas to store it. Easements are needed to do culvert work on private property and ensure structures that could interfere with the flow of water aren’t built in the area. In a few cases, entire lots would be needed to create areas where water can be stored.

The project had a price tag of about $1 million in 2015, and while relying on easements rather than buying properties may seem like a less expensive option, it’s usually not, Richard Klein, a senior associate with Stantec, said. 

“Often times the least expensive way to remedy flooding problems is to buy properties,” he said. “If we have more space available, you can potentially get a better project.”

The board’s recommendation is expected to be considered by the Common Council next month.    

The board also took preliminary steps to mitigate flooding on Lake Street that during the Aug. 27 storm damaged the Lighthouse Condominiums and destroyed cars parked in and around the underground parking garage there and sent a torrent of water rushing through Veterans Memorial Park.

The culprit is Valley Creek, which runs along the bike trial downhill toward the condominiums. A culvert that is supposed to carry the water under Veterans Memorial Park to the lake was overwhelmed during the recent flood.

Officials have identified two problems. The upstream end of the culvert became blocked by debris and the downstream end where it empties into Lake Michigan was partially filled with silt because of high lake levels.

One of the solutions proposed by Stantec  is to install a debris barrier on the upstream end of the drainage system and shorten the culvert so it is not affected by high lake levels. Then a stream channel could be constructed in the park and a pedestrian bridge built over it at the lakefront. 

Vanden Noven urged the board to study culvert improvements designed to keep it free of debris before moving ahead with creating a stream channel and bridge in the park, which will be expensive and time consuming, he said. 

“I think its very possible that debris in the culvert and in the park could have been entirely responsible for the flooding,” he said. “If we redesign the creek and put in pedestrian bridges, the project would take a lot longer.

“I want to accomplish the mission of flood-proofing the condos and parking garage, but I want to do it for the least amount of money possible.”

Residents of the condos have made it clear they want flooding that has damaged their homes and cars twice in the last decade resolved now.

Karen Oleski, who has lived in the complex for 12 years, told the board that a 2008 flood caused $120,000 of damage to the condos and ruined more than 20 cars. This summer’s flood caused $200,000 of damage and destroyed more cars.

“Why did we only work to improve Veterans Park and the street and not address Valley Creek?” she asked, adding that loss of trees along the creek has exacerbated flooding problems.

Oleski said the city should give condo owners a 2018 property tax credit in light of the fact they each have to pay a $5,000 assessment to repair flood damage in their building.

The board voted to have Stantec do a hydrologic study and inspect the culvert for a maximum $6,000.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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