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Story Last modified at 10:04 p.m. on Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tablelands subdivision battles drainage problems
High-end homes plagued by damage caused by runoff

BY ZAZ HOLLANDER
Alaska Star

photo:News

Standing water fills a drainage ditch in The Tablelands subdivision along Sambar Loop on June 6. A fence collapsing across the road due to drainage-related erosion is another problem residents hope the municipality will fix.
STAR PHOTO by Zaz Hollander

Sitting atop a forested mesa that rises above Peters Creek neighbors, the homes in The Tablelands subdivision start at about $500,000.

Some feature vaulted ceilings, Corian countertops and three-car garages. Others, particularly on Sambar Loop and Fallow Circle, come with less appealing amenities: water-filled drainage ditches where mosquitoes breed; a toppled fence leaning from an eroded lawn; and driveway humps from frost-heaved culverts.

Residents say drainage problems have plagued parts of the high-end subdivision since home construction began here in 2004.

They also say that despite years of complaints, neither the municipality nor developer Rex Turner and his company, Arctic Devco Inc., have done much to remedy the buckled driveways and stagnant water along the road.

Now, however, the municipality is weighing legal action to force Turner to fix the longstanding drainage problems. Turner for his part says the city can do as it chooses, but he has no plans to remedy problems in a subdivision he believes the city signed off on several years ago.

Residents say they're caught in the middle. Things are only happening now, they say, because the drainage problems were so bad this spring that homeowners inundated the city with complaints.

Tablelands resident Angie Fraize calculated that she and her neighbors pay around $6,000 a year in property taxes, money that should translate into more help with poor drainage.

"We pay a substantial amount of taxes," Fraize said. "All the driveways have heaved culvert humps. You can't get into some driveways with a low-clearance car."

Fraize and her husband bought one of the first Tablelands homes in 2004 but said she didn't realize the duration of the problem until she complained about the lack of street sweeping earlier this spring.

Then, Fraize said, she also realized how hard it might be to find someone to take responsibility.

"Every person I have talked to (has) pushed blame onto someone else," she said in a May letter to the Chugiak-Birchwood-Eagle River Rural Road Service Area board.

'Slipped through the cracks'

About a dozen people signed up to testify about The Tablelands at the road service area board's May meeting. Municipal officials were on hand, too.

"People were asking why it took six years to get to this point and basically they said they're busy," said Linda Kovac, road board chair. "It slipped through the cracks, I think."

For years, the board was doing "minimum maintenance" at Tablelands, emergency plowing and sanding when necessary to keep the roads were safe, Kovac said. But the board in May officially approved plowing, sanding and sweeping on a routine basis, she said.

Municipal development officials say that's because there was confusion surrounding who was responsible for road maintenance due at least in part to the drainage issue.

Municipal officials say they are well aware of the problems at The Tablelands. A case history of the project reveals that concerns about drainage issues began in 2004.

The municipality and Turner's company signed off on a subdivision agreement for The Tablelands in 2003, according to a timeline developed by Don Keefer, the city's private development manager. Keefer sent out the timeline in early May in response to a flurry of calls about the subdivision.

In 2004, a pre-final inspection noted the need for streetlights, a guardrail and a that all ditches "within this subdivision and Glenn View North need to be graded to flow properly. This is imperative for placing these subdivisions on warranty."

A warranty typically lasts two years. Warranties make sure developers correct any design or construction defects in public improvements required by a subdivision agreement.

The project passed final inspection in December 2004 but the municipality rescinded the warranty in April 2005 due to, among other problems, ditches not draining properly, according to Keefer's analysis of city files. Arctic Devco was placed in default.

The project was put back on warranty in August 2005 – and never came off, according to Keefer's analysis. He said Monday that The Tablelands never came off warranty because of the drainage issues. He also said the city never signed a notice of completion on the subdivision signaling that Turner's work was done.

Backing up Fraize's contention about street sweeping, Keefer found the municipality should be performing routine maintenance. He found that Turner is responsible for landscaping: stabilizing slopes above drainage ditches to prevent erosion. Officials are also examining Turner's responsibility for the larger drainage problems.

The city is looking into "what the possibilities are (and are not) regarding legal recourse" that the city may have against Turner, Keefer said in an e-mail last week.

Turner is a prominent Palmer-based developer responsible for at least a dozen subdivisions in Anchorage and the Mat-Su.

Reached on his cell phone en route to Seward, Turner said he couldn't really talk about specifics because he didn't have Tablelands documents in front of him.

But he was clear on one thing: As far as he's concerned, that warranty was allowed to expire. His company has no intention of going back and fixing anything else in The Tablelands.

As for the possibility of legal action, Turner said, "they're going to do whatever they're going to do. I'm comfortable with our position."

He said his company completed their warranty period and – days before the expiration date – sent the city a letter asking if there was anything else they needed to do

"We never heard back," Turner said.

In a 2006 letter to the municipality, Turner said that the city had no legal ground to come after him for drainage repairs. The problems were "largely the result of actions taken by private builders and homeowners whose actions were detrimental to the ditching and culvert systems or were otherwise corrected by ADI," Turner wrote.

DIY

As time passed with no action, some property owners decided to try to fix the problems themselves.

One of Fraize's neighbors dug up his driveway, reset his culvert and $4,000 and a year and a half later, the hump came back, she said. That's because the underlying drainage problems that led to the frost heave were never addressed.

Another Sambar Loop resident or residents last fall decided to remove the rock covering lining the ditch in front of two properties on Sambar Loop. They hoped to shore up an eroding slope by replacing the existing rock cover with larger rocks.

A municipal right-of-way enforcement officer discovered a contractor removing material from the ditch without a permit. The officer told him to get a permit, which he applied for but never came back to pick it up, Keefer's summary said.

The area was left stripped of rock, bare earth exposed, through the winter. The erosion worsened this spring.

The muni wants the property owners involved to submit a plan to restabilize the area and get a permit for the work including the permit fee of at least $230.

Greg Mick, a 45-year-old attorney and businessman, lives across Sambar from that property.

The permit story just exemplifies his frustration with the muni, Mick said. He'd have to get a permit to fix the culvert that forms an unwanted speed bump at the base of his driveway. He wants the city to come out and correct the problems and work with homeowners on the culverts.

"It's standing water. It does not drain. Look at our driveways – if the drainage had been done properly that never would have happened," Mick said. "You won't do anything about it but you won't let me do anything to fix my driveway."

Mick said he and his wife - Lynne McCormick, urology chief at the Alaska Native Medical Center – plan to move within a year to Alabama where he's starting a company that turns catfish processing waste into liquid fertilizer.

He worries they could lose money on the home they bought in 2005.

"That's one of the first things people see out here," Mick said, looking out toward the eroded lawn across the street and standing water along the road. "They're like, 'What's going on around here?'"



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, June 8, 2011.