Trafalgar officials, developer, residents remain in standoff over drainage problem

A backyard in the Crest Ridge Estates subdivision in Trafalgar is submerged in water regularly during heavy rain, and no one is sure who is at fault for it.

The Crest Ridge Estates subdivision is an older neighborhood in Trafalgar, and was first platted and approved for over 50 homes in 1989, according to plan documents from the Johnson County recorder’s office.

A second section of the neighborhood, called Crest Ridge Estates 2, was platted in 2000, according to county documents. However, it was not fully built out for years, and a lot of construction started again within the last few years. Several lots in the new section are still awaiting building permits, with new streets and infrastructure already completed.

Some houses already built in that newer section of the neighborhood along Downing Drive have experienced flooding and mud in the backyards, and the homeowners claim the issues got worse when preparations for new houses behind them started within the last year.

When the problem persisted, the town of Trafalgar got involved.

Now, the town is in a standoff with the developer, Ron Fewell, and the affected residents, trying to determine who needs to fix the drainage problem and what exactly is causing the flooding.

The engineering report

In October, the town paid engineering firm Curry and Associates, Inc. to study drainage plans of the unbuilt lots in Crest Ridge 2, including the area where backyards were flooding.

On Oct. 18, the firm sent a report preliminarily determining that building could commence on most of the remaining lots, but building permits for three lots that back up to the flooding properties should not be released.

The report further details that it was clear the entirety of Crest Ridge 2 was approved by the county with “no stormwater retention, or detention incorporated into the drainage system.” Because the subdivision plans are over 20 years old, some drainage standards practiced today may not have been in place then, town officials say.

“It was approved sometime before 2006, as aerial photography indicates no construction activity in this area until 2006. This development was approved for construction through a review by Johnson County, and it is unknown by what standards the development was reviewed and approved by, or whether stormwater retention, or detention would have even been required if reviewed by today’s standards,” the engineering report reads.

In a second letter from Oct. 28, the engineers added it was “immediately evident” the affected house at 27 Downing Drive with the majority of the flooding had improper grading and does not have positive drainage sloping away or around the lot to direct stormwater flowing to it.

That report recommended 230 feet of storm sewer be installed from the rear yard of that lot, through the existing easement behind it to the existing storm sewer on the west side of Steeplechase Court. That would fix the drainage issues, and allow the three lots in question to be built, the report says.

“These three lots should remain undeveloped until the flooding in the backyards north of lots 46 and 47, has been remedied,” the report says.

Who is at fault?

Following the issuing of the engineer reports, Fewell and his development partners attended two council meetings on Nov. 17 and Dec. 8. They say the three lots in question are not causing the flooding problems, and houses being built there would not make it worse.

“Only God himself can change that drainage down through there. That water has always come down through there,” said Rod Stafford, one of the developers, to the council on Dec. 8. “It’s not our fault.”

Fewell said water running down that area of the subdivision has always been an issue. He lived in that area for over 15 years, and described that section as a “waterfall” during hard rain before the road and housing lots were put in.

The developers say the town is mainly at fault for approving the building permit for the affected house, which was not built up to code with proper drainage and grading. That is why the yard keeps flooding, they said.

They were frustrated with the town for withholding the building permits for the three lots because the engineering report did not definitively say, in their eyes, that those lots were causing the problems, Stafford said.

“I would like to know where the town of Trafalgar gets the authority to seize $150,000 worth of our assets?” Stafford said.

Town council members and town attorney Jacob Bowman, however, said the developers cannot increase the flow rate of water onto the properties, whether it had been like that before development or not.

“Technically, you cannot increase the flow rate on someone else’s property, and that is what has been done,” council member Jerry Rafferty said. “We are trying to work through the problem. Let’s see where it goes.”

This back and forth between the developers and the town council dragged on for around an hour on Dec. 8. A similar exchange also occurred during the Nov. 17 council meeting.

During the Nov. 17 meeting, Tim Guyer, the town building inspector, said the main drainage issues started being reported after construction of the new section, but he was not sure how bad the flooding may have been before. He was not around when Crest Ridge was originally platted and started working for the town well after Crest Ridge 2 was underway.

“I’ve gotten caught in the middle of all of it,” Guyer said. “I’m trying to make sure everybody here in the town here is comfortable and does not have an issue because the state does say you cannot send water on another property faster than what it was before.”

General lack of oversight

The predicament Trafalgar is in with Crest Ridge Estates is related to a common theme of a lack of oversight in town planning over the years, council member Jason Ramey said.

‘This town has traditionally been pretty poor at procedures,” Ramey said. “We have approved things and followed the procedures as best we could that were in place. But I absolutely feel that things have been missed, and things have fallen through the cracks.”

Crest Ridge Estates was never issued a performance or subdivision bond with the town, which generally is an agreement that guarantees that public improvements in a subdivision will be completed to a certain quality, in accordance with regulations and within a required time frame.

That is part of the reason this situation is difficult with the Crest Ridge Estates, Bowman said at the Nov. 17 council meeting.

“That’s why we’re in this limbo, right? That’s why it’s difficult for us to deal with because we’re looking at documents from 20 years ago. We’re looking at approvals from 20 years ago. And 20 years ago, this wasn’t done correctly,” Bowman said.

This is one of many instances recently where the Crest Ridge Estates have been involved in controversy. In July last year, a house in the subdivision was allegedly draining water onto the land of Mike Smith, a nearby property owner. Smith complained to the town, and the neighborhood homeowners association helped him resolve the problem.

Additionally, the town of Trafalgar is currently in a legal battle with a builder of a house in Crest Ridge Estates, Brock Builders, for violating a stop work order issued to 32 Downing Drive.

Johnson County officials have been contacted about the subdivision, but so far have had little to no involvement with the recent Crest Ridge issues. When asked about it by the Daily Journal, County Surveyor Gregg Cantwell said he had talked to the affected homeowners, but overall has not been in the loop on the drainage problems, but offered his help to Trafalgar, if it was needed.

Bryan Gregg, a resident of Crest Ridge Estates and a member of the neighborhood’s HOA, has been involved with a number of neighbors’ issues, including the flooding problem. Gregg has also filed to run for town council as a Republican.

“Crest Ridge has problems. We’re making progress. It’s just slow. But that’s (the flooding lots) a big financial burden there,” Gregg said.

Gregg said the backyards flooding was a problem before the new home developments started, but the homeowners were told it would be fixed with the new roads and infrastructure. But that was not the case because flooding still persists, Gregg said.

With all these issues, he and the affected homeowers have been threatened with defamation lawsuits by Fewell, he said. For that reason, the affected homeowners declined an interview with the Daily Journal.

But Gregg does not think any of the problems with Crest Ridge are from ill intentions but rather from a lack of oversight and procedure, he said. He and other homeowners are not against further development and new homes.

Solution still pending

Amidst the back and forth at the Dec. 8 council meeting, Ramey suggested the town serve as a mediator in a meeting with the developers and the affected homeowners to determine who needs to fix what with the drainage. Because coming to argue with the council every meeting was not an effective solution, he said.

“What I get the feeling of here is there’s just a lot of standoff going on right now, and we’re trying to get to the same point,” Ramey said. “They don’t want their yard flooded, you don’t want to flood their yard, you want to sell your property and build homes and move on.”

Stafford and other members of the development team declined to partake in that. He had no interest in working with the homeowners because they have not been kind to them, he said.

“They’ve not been nice to us in any way shape or form,” Stafford said. “They’ve turned us into the state of Indiana, they’ve turned us in to the city of Trafalgar. They’ve come up there on our space and mowed down our vegetation.”

Bowman said he had talked to the engineer after initial reports from October. He said the engineer wanted to further investigate the three lots in question and the affected yard with the flooding. However, Bowman does not know if it’s the town’s job to spend money to assess a problem that may not be the town’s problem.

“I don’t really know if it is the town’s job to retain and pay this guy and spend taxpayer money to investigate as to matters that may not be the town’s problem. It may be the homeowner’s problem. It may be your guy’s problem as a developer. We just don’t know yet,” Bowman said.

He suggested the developers retain their own engineer to prove the points they claimed about the drainage, and come back to the town with a report to go from there.

It is unclear if the developers have hired an engineer. They did not come to the January council meeting, and Fewell could not be reached for further comment.

Additional building permits have also not been requested for Crest Ridge 2 since November, according to town documents.

Gregg is also unaware of the status of the solution, he said. He wants a solution to be found beyond just not allowing them to build on the land in question. He is worried they would just let those lots sit there, while the flooding now still persists.

So you don’t build those three lots, but then they just sit, it’s going to get overgrown, the water still comes through there. It doesn’t fix the issue,” he said. “The statement from the town is, ‘You don’t build the lots unless you correct the drainage.’ OK, but that can’t be the end.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Johnson County approved plans for the Crest Ridge Estates subdivision. However, who approved what plans for the subdivision and drainage is under dispute between the county and Trafalgar. County officials say the plats were approved by the town of Trafalgar, but Trafalgar also says the county approved the original subdivision plans.