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Fishing for funds

NORTH LIBERTY– Some North Liberty homeowners are learning the hard way the dubious joys of pond ownership. Two representatives of the homeowner’s association from Penn Prairie on the Pond subdivision approached the North Liberty City Council last week to ask for assistance, and learned anew about the city council’s aversion to precedent-setting spending.
The subject is a 2.3 acre retention pond located east of Front Street between Tartan, Weston and Boardmoor drives. The homeowners’ association in Penn Prairie has sought the city’s assistance since 2010 in addressing the problems of excessive algae and debris flowing into the pond from the city’s storm water drains. Though the homeowners’ association paid $60,000 to have the pond’s banks lined with riprap– a layer of rock that helps prevent erosion, and in this case, a bad muskrat infestation– and spent between $8,000 and $10,200 in each of the last five years for chemical treatments to prevent algae growth, the group received just $250 from the city in reimbursement for a 2010 depth evaluation on the pond, from the city’s Storm Water Quality grant program. With 52 homeowners in the association, it equates to about $17 per month each for the pond’s maintenance.
The group resurfaced last week to make a new plea for assistance. Residents Gary Burge and Jon Demartino told the council that while the algae is under control thanks to weekly chemical treatments, the amount of sand, silt and trash that flow into the pond from city streets and storm drains have decreased the pond’s depth and made an unsightly, unsavory mess.
The homeowners have ceased their use of lawn fertilizers and do not allow grass clippings to deposit in the pond (actions that help curb algae growth), but there is still much draining into the pond they can’t control.
“We have over 70 city drains that come into the pond, providing everything you can think of,” said Burge, referring to the storm water inlets at street level. For example, in the on-going cleanup efforts, Burge said he collected six separate bags of dog feces that people had thrown into the city’s storm sewers after a recent rain. In another instance, a discarded shovel was found in the drain. “It washes into the pond. The inlet drains are half-filled with sludge, which is coming off the street. The sand and dirt from construction run-off is a continual factor in filling up the pond.”
Burge offered possible solutions to help keep the pond clean and algae-free, including having an independent engineering firm evaluate the pond’s depth, dredging the pond perhaps with the help of city staff and equipment, creating deeper holding areas for debris and nutrients, and placing drain filters on the inlets to keep debris from entering the pond.
“We are not asking the city to take over the pond, we just request some assistance and understanding,” Burge said.
Council member Chris Hoffman said all ponds have similar deposits.
“I think every pond in the city will have that inflow of product, whether it’s shovels or bags of dog feces,” said Hoffman. “What is the engineering study going to help you understand more of, so that you can solve it?”
“Depth is a problem,” replied Demartino. “It’s silting in from silt that washes in from the streets. We would like an independent engineering firm to determine if this pond should be brought up to current city code, which (requires) a 10 ft. depth over 35 percent of the total pond.”
Ponds have been included in the landscapes of both commercial and residential development areas in North Liberty since at least the 1990s, said City Engineer Kevin Trom. The City of North Liberty has an MS4 permit, which dictates guidelines for storm water quality and storm water management. Not every city has an MS4 permit; indeed, some smaller communities in the state have no storm water detention requirements at all.
In North Liberty, the approval process for ponds in a development is dictated by the city’s storm water management requirements, said City Planer Dean Wheatley.
Detention basins are low-lying areas designed to temporarily hold water during heavy rains, while slowly draining the water to another location in order to prevent flash flooding. Often, detention basins will revert to dry, grassy basins between rain events.
Retention ponds, on the other hand, are built to hold a specific amount of water. They are also built to allow drainage to another location to avoid flooding, but generally, they will remain a pond.
Whether wet or dry, storm water retention is just one piece of the bigger picture; it helps prevent flooding and protects the regional watershed by filtering harmful substances that would otherwise be released into Muddy Creek.
The Penn Prairie Pond is a wet detention basin, and according to Trom’s reports to city officials in 2011 and his comments of last Tuesday, this one is functioning according to its design and purpose.
On the aesthetic side, ponds require maintenance in order to remain attractive, and many people don’t know the first thing about pond maintenance. However, when people purchase property in a development, upkeep of the pond often comes with it.
Sometimes, it’s a surprise acquisition.
Wheatley counted 45 detention basins within the city, nine of which are city owned and maintained. The other 36 are under private ownership, either through a homeowners’ association, or by the initial developer.
Whether or not they own a pond, all North Liberty residents help defend the watershed by paying $2 each month on their utility bill for storm water management. The 52 homeowners in Penn Prairie once asked the city for a refund of their collective payments to be put toward the upkeep of their pond, but the city said the funds were to maintain the overall watershed, which the Penn Prairie pond also drains into, and the refund request didn’t float.
As for putting screens on the city’s inlets to keep debris and silt from washing into the pond, Trom wrote in a memo to city council members that there are thousands of storm drains throughout the city.
“Trash baskets would be very time consuming for staff to clean out,” Trom wrote. “The sanitary sewer lift stations, which are relatively few, are designed with trash baskets so that the pumps are not damaged, but are a common staff complaint to clean these out regularly. Considering the number of storm drains, I would imagine trash baskets would be a major staff undertaking.”
Some of the problem must be addressed through individual responsibility, Trom indicated.
“In an effort to educate the public about not polluting, the city has put stickers on the tops of many of the street drains to help people understand that runoff from yards, streets, etc. that drain to the storm sewers eventually drain out to ponds and creeks,” he added.
But in the experience of Penn Prairie residents, that’s not enough, and they continued to appeal to the city officials for assistance; if not financial, at least for increased leadership.
“Does the city have no responsibility for storm water maintenance?” Demartino asked. “The city’s storm water maintenance ends, in the city’s mind, where it comes into our pond, and then it’s our property. You are maintaining the watershed only up to the street drain, and then when it washes in there, it’s our garbage. I just understand how the city doesn’t have responsibility for storm water management, for the watershed, to the citizens, who are also taxpayers.”
Council member Brian Wayson said it was not reasonable for the city to offer funds to a single homeowners’ association.
“What do I tell the taxpayers of North Liberty; that we are spending tax money to fix one pond? Then what about the rest of them?” Wayson said.
Mayor Tom Salm said the request for financial assistance would amount to a policy decision for the council.
“If they decide to spend money on that pond, then they have to plan on spending money on the other 30 ponds, and then it definitely affects the tax rates for everybody in the community,” Salm said.
Burge replied that the association had applied for a city grant, but was denied.
“We aren’t asking the city to put all the money into it. We are asking for some help. I can understand not opening Pandora’s box, but we are asking you to correct a wrong that was done before us being here,” Burge said, stating the pond was not built according to the developer’s original plan approved by the council in 2001, with riprap and proper depth.
“If it continues, or we don’t go to effort of treating it, it will become unsightly and be a total nuisance for aroma for the people in that area,” Burge said. “We have 52 people living around it, but it won’t only affect them. It will be both sides of Weston and both sides of Tartan. We are very proud of the area, and we spent the money to try to keep it look nice. We feel we are an important part of North Liberty.”
The council was unmoved to act, although council member Coleen Chipman asked City Administrator Ryan Heair to explore the options of turning the pond into a dry detention basin. Ultimately, Heiar agreed to gather additional questions from council members, research options and bring the item back to a future agenda for further discussion.