Drainage plan calls for regional solutions
The Johnson Lane Area Drainage Master Plan is out. Let’s take a look.
The Johnson Lane area has a complex drainage situation due to both its natural and built environment. Basically, water moves in concentrated flows in steeper upstream areas and then as it reaches lower elevations with less slope the water spreads out into paths that change over time. Along the way it picks up sediment that gets deposited downstream as the flow slows.
Much of the area where the water might spread out has been developed with houses and roads, greatly complicating the situation. Quite a few lots and roads are in the direct path of flood waters. There is no regional drainage system other than roadside ditches.
A natural question is, how did we get here? The simple answer is what the plan calls “wildcat subdivisions” where holdings were repeatedly divided into no more than four parcels. State law limits what local governments can demand of developers in these situations.
But I think it is fair to say that somewhere along the way anyone who cared to look at and think about the situation could see the problem that was developing: homes being built without adequate infrastructure and with no mechanism in place to pay for correcting that later or maintaining whatever infrastructure was built.
To this day residents of this area pay nothing but the general taxes everyone in the county pays. Contrast this with the situation in our towns and GIDs, where residents have long paid additional taxes to maintain and upgrade infrastructure.
The problems that now plague this area have been made painfully obvious by recent flood events. So consultants were hired to evaluate the situation and what might be done. They did a good job.
The Plan carefully outlines the complex drainage situation in this area and then proceeds into what might be done to address it. As usual in studies like this the consultants, who are experts, were asked by the public, who are not, to address alternatives that might get everyone off the hook cheaply and ideally at someone else’s expense. None of these are really feasible, for reasons the report makes clear.
The few of these measures that might reduce the flood risk are complicated by the fact that they would require cooperation among property owners and between property owners and the County. Something that I think is unlikely given the “wildcat” nature of this area, where people like to live “on their own” with a degree of isolation from the problems of others.
If my property is at low risk of flood damage am I really likely to spend thousands of dollars to participate in some sort of Plan whereby we all do our share on our properties to mitigate flooding, when the main benefit will go to the few who face high flood risk?
That leaves what the Plan calls regional solutions, basically a system of detention basins upstream from the community, and one dam. Detain water upstream for the duration of a storm event, then release it slowly. As the basins fill with sediment, remove that to appropriate locations.
That would cost about $15 million to build and would require regular ongoing maintenance of about $20,000 per year.
The Plan stops there, not really addressing how this might be paid for other than to list some FEMA grant programs that might help. Grants are nice but we’re given no information about the likelihood of receiving them.
The Plan is certainly a good start, but i’m left wondering what priority FEMA would put on this area when faced with much larger problems elsewhere. Even if FEMA helps build the infrastructure needed there is still the ongoing cost of maintenance.
And drainage isn’t the only infrastructure problem in this area. You can add in local roads as well, which are in poor condition and declining.
I see a few messages here for Johnson Lane residents.
First, you have serious infrastructure problems that likely adversely affect your property values. When we moved here in 2004 our realtor advised against moving there for those reasons. We bought in the Ranchos instead, where there are mechanisms in place to pay for infrastructure maintenance and enhancement.
Real estate disclosure is a more serious issue now than in the past. The Drainage Master Plan is quite specific about which properties have serious flood risks and what those risks are. I think realtors and property owners now have an affirmative obligation to disclose that information to potential buyers, and face significant risk for not doing so.
And I don’t think that just applies to properties currently at most risk, because a key lesson of this Plan is that the drainage situation changes over time. Plus there is simply the risk of living in a community that is periodically subject to widespread flooding.
I think that to solve this problem, along with the road maintenance problem, Johnson Lane residents need to think carefully about their willingness to pay in the future the kinds of infrastructure taxes that those in our towns and GIDs pay now.
In those areas risks such as these are addressed in advance of development by putting necessary infrastructure in place first and new owners pay extra taxes to maintain that infrastructure going forward. I suspect the positive effect of that on property values helps to offset the cost.
Johnson Lane residents need to ask themselves if it is realistic to expect others to pay for solutions that benefit only the Johnson Lane area. You’ll have much more success getting others to help if you help yourselves first, by bring your community up to tax parity with the rest of the County and dedicating the proceeds to your infrastructure problems.
And County leadership needs to think carefully about the wisdom of asking those who already pay to pay more to solve the problems of those who don’t.
Terry Burnes is a Gardnerville Ranchos resident and former Bay area planner.