Hillside code waivers a factor in Paradise Valley storm water woes

A look at the kind of flooding that occurs in portions of the Town of Paradise Valley. (File photo)

On Sept. 8, 2014 the Town of Paradise Valley experienced a level of rain exceeding what is known as a 100-year storm event that left an estimated 80 homes flooded in what town officials have coined the Cheney and Cherokee watersheds.

In the ensuing weeks, it appears, the Town of Paradise Valley realized they have a significant issue: a lack of effective storm water management.

Furthermore, it appears the Town of Paradise Valley — specifically former Town Engineer Bill Mead — was allowing all new or remodeled homes on what town officials designated as a “Hillside property” to skip storm water retention requirements.

Officials at Town Hall say the storm water retention requirements were waived for what is likely a 25-year period.

Town officials today can’t say how many projects were allowed to not follow storm retention guidelines, but one official at Town Hall says prior to the hiring of former Public Works Director Jim Shano, “all of them were waived, likely hundreds.”

The Paradise Valley Hillside Committee was created in 1996 and is governed by Article XXII of the town’s zoning ordinance whereas members are charged with reviewing applications for building permits in the Hillside Development Area.

Membership on the Committee consists of three members of the Planning Commission and two residents appointed by the mayor and confirmed by town council.

Over the last 18 months, the Town of Paradise Valley has been conducting a water flow study specific to both the Cheney and Cherokee watersheds — an effort to understand where the water flows in that part of town.

Not since 1987 has the town updated its Storm Drain Design Manual but federal storm water mitigation rules have been, town leaders contend.

In April 2015, on the heels of heavy rain that flooded his neighborhood, Dallis Bjerkeseth, a Paradise Valley resident, came forward claiming the town failed to enforce its own ordinances concerning private development where established wash systems exist.

That failure, over the last few decades, created significant flooding opportunities, Mr. Bjerkeseth said at the time.

“I have lived here 23-plus years, and I have never once contacted the city about flooding. For whatever reason I never did, you just dealt with it yourself. All of a sudden I got this letter from this guy at the town and he is mentioning that I have a mound of dirt that is effecting runoff,” he told the Independent back in 2015.

Mr. Bjerkeseth lives in Gary Estates and says his neighborhood, in addition to his own subdivision, consists of homes coined the Mummy Mountain View Estates and La Vista in central Paradise Valley.

Paradise Valley faces a unique geographical challenge mitigating and controlling floodwaters due to the topography of the area. Within Paradise Valley town limits there is Mummy Mountain, the Phoenix Mountain Preserve and the north side of Camelback Mountain.

Paradise Valley homeowners are responsible for maintaining all natural washes located on their property. The town’s drainage system consists primarily of privately maintained natural washes with limited underground drainage systems, bridges and culverts.

Paradise Valley Town Council held an executive session Thursday, Jan. 26 to get from Town Attorney Andrew Miller legal advice regarding storm water management liability.

In Arizona, municipalities are given a provision within state statutes to discuss certain items away from the limelight of the public arena. The closed-door meetings are known as executive sessions.

This graphic is meant to represent two watersheds within the Town of Paradise Valley. (Submitted graphic)

Water flow vs disturbed land

Paradise Valley Building Safety Manager Bob Lee says prior to Mr. Shano’s tenure all Hillside projects were not required to manage storm water run-off.

“The code that addresses on-site retention says that the on-site retention may be waived on Hillside lots,” he said in a Jan. 31 phone interview.

“Bill, he did waive those retention requirements on every single lot. His concern was retention creates disturbed area and by waiving that requirement you keep the amount of disturbed area down, which speaks to the spirit of the Hillside Building Committee.”

According to published news reports, Mr. Mead spent 25 years at the Town of Paradise Valley retiring in 2012, whereas the most recent Public Works Director Jim Shano took a position with the city of El Mirage in 2016.

“On Sept. 8 of 2014 we saw the impact of that decision,” Mr. Lee said of the waiving of storm water retention codes.

“Jim Shano, when he was the new engineer, he took over and said, ‘wow we have got to do something rather than waiving the requirement, I am going to require it.’ When he took that concept to the Hillside Committee they were a bit aghast as they are not inclined to care about the damage caused by run-off — they are more concerned with the amount of disturbance.”

But Mr. Lee did point out that Mr. Shano did make concessions given the difficulty of storm water management on steep slopes.

“As you got steeper the retention percentage got less,” he said noting that any slope at 50 percent or higher water retention was completely waived. “He found a middle ground, that’s a good way to put it.”

Mr. Shano says September 2014 was a watershed moment for the Town of Paradise Valley.

“We started looking at ways we could improve and create storm water studies,” Mr. Shano said in a Jan. 31 phone interview. “I thought it was prudent that we started looking at water retention on the Hillside.”

But Mr. Shano contends it is not fair to place blame on any one person or action as the topography of the Town of Paradise Valley presents significant construction hurdles.

“I would say, that, ‘no, it is not fair to place blame on that single item,’” he said of town actions prior to his arrival.

“It was the sheer lack of infrastructure for storm water as a whole that played a big role in all of this. I think the town today is taking the right steps.”

Nothing to see here

When asked if the Town of Paradise Valley is facing a any kind of serious liability due to a lack of flood water mitigation, Town Manager Kevin Burke, replied “no.”

“The town has always had some type of storm drainage requirements. There seems to be more attention to this issue with serious floods that occurred in 2013 and 2014,” he said in a Jan. 31 phone interview.

Kevin Burke

“Between the limitations of the Storm Drain Design Manual and the history of significant events this issue has gotten a lot more attention.”

Mr. Burke points some of the storm drainage materials haven’t been updated since Ronald Reagan was the American President.

“I don’t know that is has been updated in more than a decade,” he said of the 1987 manual.

“There are some federal regulations, and those we have to manage as well. The other piece that gets confusing is FEMA and the flood control program that they manage. If you are looking the flood plain for a 100-year event, it really just looks like the Indian Bend Wash. What is less clear, if I am outside of the area, what is my risk associated with this?”

Mr. Burke says the issues before the elected leaders is what guiding philosophy ought to lead future storm water mitigation documents, efforts and regulations.

“You are going to have to make some policy decision and how will legal liability effect those policy decisions,” he said of questions posed to the local governing board.

“One of the items that is probably the most discussed is the on-site retention issues. That adds to the run-off and our code requires you retain that water up to a 100-year event. On Hillside that retention requirement may be waived by the town engineer.”

Paradise Valley Town Council is expected to host a study session discussion Thursday, Feb. 9 at Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive, on all things storm water management, Mr. Burke says.

“It is a study session, I don’t know if we will get any actions out of it,” he said.

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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