Commonwealth Journal

August 29, 2013

Sinkhole generates questions of liability

City researching who should repair it

by Heather Tomlinson
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

You could say Pete and Ruth Wronikowski have gone to every length to prevent flooding issues at their downtown Somerset residence.
The couple, who have resided at 135 N. Richardson Drive for around two years, have drain grids in front of their driveway and front yard to help keep water run-off from inundating the property after a heavy rain. Their garage is up on cement blocks. Their back yard has a retaining wall, which has been there for several decades and since before their ownership of the house. 
“We’ve done all we can,” said Ruth Wronikowski on Wednesday. 
But several times a year, after any significant rainfall, the Wronikowskis deal with flooding behind their home. Pete Wronikowski said around 33 acres of water flows behind their home, thanks to a city drainage ditch that collects water from higher elevations above the house. The house sits in the bottom of a natural basin. When rain falls, water flows from all sides — from Vine and Oak streets, and Limestone Street. 
Pete Wronikowski said he speaks with the city’s maintenance department several times a year. The city works to clear the drainage ditch of debris — although the Wronikowskis said they’ve done that themselves as well. The Wronikowskis said the city will usually make sure a large drainage grid the water flows down into stays uncovered in preparation for rain. 
But last week, Pete Wronikowski discovered a sinkhole in his back yard while mowing, and he called the city to ask what could be done about the situation. The sinkhole, the Wronikowskis said, may be a direct result of the May 2010 floods that left water all the way up to the back door of their home. 
And the floods, the Wronikowskis say, are a direct result of the back-up of water that flows down the city’s drainage area. 
Pete Wronikowski appeared before Somerset City Council during Monday’s meeting and asked about the status of the situation. 
Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler said the sinkhole has been surveyed, but he said the city is at an impasse and is waiting on word from its insurance company on whether the repairs fall under the city’s responsibility.
 “They were determining whether or not the city had any responsibility for the sinkhole in your yard,” Girdler told Wronikowski during the meeting. 
Girdler said legal questions are raised in the situation because the sinkhole is located on private property, and not on city property. 
“As far as I know, there’s not much we can do on a sinkhole on private property,” said Girdler, who emphasized he cannot give a definitive answer until the insurance company hands down a decision on the situation. 
The 2010 floods left a number of areas in the city and county covered in water after more than 5 inches of rain fell over a two-day period during an unusually wet spring. The deluge left the Richard’s Court area, another downtown Somerset locale known for flooding problems, completely covered in water. 
“That’s always been a low spot that a lot of water runs to naturally,” said Councilor Jimmy Eastham on Tuesday, who lives on Richardson Drive himself. 
Girdler said the city drilled drainage holes in the area in an attempt to stop the flooding, and he said during Monday’s meeting he hadn’t received any reports of floods in the Richardson Drive area since then. 
Pete Wronikowski, who confirmed that the city drilled the drainage holes relatively quickly after the 2010 floods, said his yard still takes on quite a bit of water after more than just a couple inches of rainfall — although he said they haven’t had a situation as significant as the 2010 floods since the holes were installed. 
 “It’s just too much water back there,” Pete Wronikowski said during the meeting. 
Pete Wronikowski told Girdler he would have appreciated a phone call back from the city to let him know the progress of the situation. 
“It can’t be a quick decision because we have to determine whether or not those sinkholes are a direct result of city activity,” said Girdler. 
City of Somerset Attorney Carrie Wiese said she hadn’t received any response from the insurance company as of Monday evening. 
“As far as I know, there’s not been a denial of coverage letter,” said Wiese. 
Pete Wronikowski told the council on Monday that the drainage holes have been blocked by dirt and debris, and asked whether those can be unclogged. 
Councilor John Ricky Minton and Councilor Pat Bourne both raised questions on whether the city can unblock those drains — but Girdler said it’s a gray area because the drains are located on a neighbor’s private property.
“We have no legal rights to tell a property owner what they can or can’t do on their property,” said Girdler. 
Minton asked where the liability lies should the Wronikowskis’ yard gets flooded again as a result of the clogged drains. 
“If someone plugged them up and he (Wronikowski) gets flooded, would they be liable?” asked Minton. 
Wiese affirmed that.
Councilor Jerry Burnett, an acquaintance to the Wronikowskis, said the flooding issues on Richardson Drive have been ongoing, but he said he’s hopeful the city can work to take care of the problem. 
“It takes a lot of water from four different directions,” said Burnett. 
“ ... There’s sinkholes all over Pulaski County, all over Somerset,” Burnett later said to Wronikowski. “ ... I’m just thankful it hasn’t damaged your house.”
Pete Wronikowski on Wednesday said he would just like to know what can be done with the sinkhole, and he said the high volume of water that runs through the area appears to have led to erosion issues as well. 
Plastic mesh has been placed around the drainage area in an effort to slow erosion, which occurs when dirt, or weathered particles, are carried away by moving water. 
Eastham on Tuesday said Pete Wronikowski visited him personally to ask that the city look into the situation, and Eastham told him they would do so. 
“We’re going to get to the bottom of that,” said Eastham.
Eastham said a sewer lift station, or a facility used to move wastewater from lower to higher elevations, is located at the bottom of Richardson Drive, next to the Wronikowskis’ home, and said the area is regularly monitored. 
“They’re done a lot of work down there, and we won’t ignore this,” said Eastham. “ ... It’s not irreparable. We’re going to make a good thing out of it.”
Girdler on Monday apologized to Pete Wronikowski for a lack of response, and he said officials would contact Wronikowski as soon as they hear back on the insurance coverage.