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Bryant homeowners sue the city after repeated flooding 

Also, blames development in which state treasurer is an investor.

click to enlarge DOWNSTREAM LIVING: Katherine Roberts says a development up the hill is channeling rainwater into her home.
  • DOWNSTREAM LIVING: Katherine Roberts says a development up the hill is channeling rainwater into her home.

If there is such a thing as a financial horror story, Katherine Roberts of Bryant is living one.

Roberts and her husband, Joshua, say their brick home on Henson Place, just off state Highway 5 in Bryant, has sustained over $110,000 in damage from repeated flooding caused by a city-owned drainage easement — a kind of shallow ditch over the top of a culvert, designed to flow water underground during light rains and over the top of the ground during major rain events — that runs 20 feet from the north wall of the house. An average rain, Roberts said, can put a half-inch of water in her living room. Heavy rains have drowned the house in a 2-foot-deep deluge. She said repeated flooding has ruined furniture and led to toxic mold, mildew, falls — including a slip on wet tile that put her 7-year-old son on crutches from an injured toe — and an electrical fire that Roberts suspects was caused by damp wiring in the walls.

Though Henson Place is not in a designated flood plain, the problem has been exacerbated, Roberts said, by a subdivision going in up the hill from her, which she believes caused new flooding despite a brief respite after the city completed a FEMA-funded drainage project. Roberts said the best outcome would be for the city to buy her out and demolish the house, so she and her family can escape the constant cycle of flooding, damage and cleanup. Unless that happens, she said, moving elsewhere is just not an option for them financially.

In August, the Robertses and their neighbor, Cynthia Wilkins, filed suit against the city of Bryant, and Maples Development Co., which built the new Whistling Pines development nearby. Tax documents obtained from the state Department of Finance and Administration show that State Treasurer Dennis Milligan is a partner in Maples Development.

Roberts bought the house in August 2001 when she was in her mid-20s. A traveling trainer for Alltel, Roberts was gone for weeks at a time, and would often come home to the smell of mildew from, she believes, small floods that happened in her absence. By the time she learned the house was flood prone — thanks to being at the lowest point of a natural bowl in the surrounding land, as well as having two small creek beds that converge 20 feet from her back door and funnel water from several acres into the head of the easement — she had a mortgage and couldn't get out. "I was young," she said. "Every dime that I had was put into buying the home. I didn't really have money to go anywhere else. I had dogs, so I couldn't get an apartment. I was just kind of stuck."

Since then, Roberts said, the house has flooded "hundreds of times," usually only enough to wet the carpets. Other events have been significant enough to leave a water line at the base of her grandfather clock and a scab of rust along the bottom of her steel front door. After repeated claims, the cost of her family's flood insurance skyrocketed. Now, her family lives with bare concrete floors in the bedrooms and tile in the living room. Both her husband and son have asthma, Roberts said, and the mold is making them sick. In the lawsuit, filed by Bryant attorney Ethan Nobles, Wilkins and Roberts request unspecified damages to cover their losses, along with an injunction halting construction on the Whistling Pines subdivision until the drainage issues they claim the development is intensifying can be remedied.

click to enlarge 'AT THE MERCY OF THE CITY': Roberts stands in a new culvert by her house that she says is not enough to handle flood water.
  • 'AT THE MERCY OF THE CITY': Roberts stands in a new culvert by her house that she says is not enough to handle flood water.

Robert said she has repeatedly pressured the city over the years to fix the flooding problem, and has been patient while they worked on the issue. "I was assured that they would fix it," she said. "They accepted money from FEMA to make the repairs and assured us it was repaired, and yet, here we are, still flooding. They're not maintaining the drains they put in. One of the drains has collapsed. It's not the new one. It's the original one. But the engineer that created all that told me the only way my house won't flood is if those drains are working. The city is refusing to fix the drain. It's underground. It's not a repair that I can make. I'm literally at the mercy of the city."

Though the new culvert put in with the FEMA grant and a sump pump installed by her husband appeared to alleviate some of the problem for a few years, Roberts said that her home flooded again in 2016. It was the worst incident yet, sending water coursing through her living room like a river. "I said, 'Something is wrong. Something's changed. We shouldn't be flooding. What is it that's different?' The city acted like I was dumb. I got in my Jeep and started driving around, and that's when I found this development, basically on the other side of my fence. That's what had changed. There was a development uphill from me. ... They don't have the houses yet, but what they'd done is clear-cut all the land. It was nothing but dirt. There was no grass, no trees. They'd put in a detention pond, and it was at capacity with a pump in it, pumping the water off toward my house. It hit me like a ton of bricks."

Roberts claims city officials have repeatedly told her the new development, which is around 200 yards behind her house, has nothing to do with the most recent flooding she has experienced, statements she believes are motivated by politics: Like Milligan, Bryant Mayor Jill Dabbs is a Republican. Dabbs, Roberts said, has told her to just sell the house and move.

"What idiot is going to buy it when I tell them it has flooded hundreds of times over the years?" Roberts said. "Somebody will buy it and make a rental out of it? OK, then, in good conscience, I'm supposed to do that and sleep at night?"

Bryant City Attorney Chris Madison said city administrators held a meeting with representatives of the relevant departments about the lawsuit last week. The city's defense in the case will be handled by attorneys with the Arkansas Municipal League, which Madison said has more experience with immunity claims.

Madison said that the subdivision where Roberts lives was platted in the mid-1990s and met all city codes at the time. A smaller-diameter drainage pipe was buried through the easement beside Roberts' home when the development was built, but after record flooding in the area, the city sought and received a FEMA grant to put in a 24-inch diameter culvert that runs alongside the original culvert next to Roberts' house (Roberts claims the original culvert has collapsed and is now fully blocked). Two months ago, city workers installed curbside inlets in front of Roberts' home to drain water from the street into the larger culvert.

"From our standpoint, we've made regular progress on trying to address concerns and issues there," Madison said. "It's like anything else: As you learn things, you modify your rules to make it better." Madison said one of the issues is that both Roberts' and Wilkins' homes are at ground level and very close to the drainage easement. "When there's more water than what the pipe can handle, it's designed to convey over the surface in the drainage easement," he said. "If you look at Ms. Roberts' house in particular, the house that's directly north of hers is 4 or 5 feet [higher] than her house is. What's that going to do with the water?"

Asked whether the city should just buy out the affected homes and demolish them, given that the city approved the construction of the original development where the houses stand, Madison said that was "a policy question outside my legal scope." He added, however, that he didn't believe the city had a legal obligation to do so.

"The houses, as far as I know, met the design standards that were in place at the time [they were built]," Madison said. "Should the city now have to come back and buy out houses that met the design standards at the time because we've learned more? You're putting a really big potential cost on cities across the state if that's the case. If I buy a house from the 1970s and don't go in and [update] the electrical in it, and I have a short, does the city need to come buy it from me?"

As for the Whistling Pines development uphill from Roberts' home and Roberts' claims that Maples Development ownership has led to inaction by the city, Madison said that he didn't know Milligan was a partner "until about six months ago." He added that when the development was in the planning stages, the city required Maples Development to allow an outside engineering firm with access to more data about flooding in the area to review its plan, which Madison said is not usually required.

Madison noted that Roberts acknowledges that her house has flooded multiple times since she bought it in 2001. "There was the opportunity for her to go after the seller or the builder of her house for selling her a bad product," Madison said. "Did she sit on her hands? We don't know. Those are things to be explored through the case. ... She bought the house from somebody. Did they disclose to her the issues? Is it my fault, necessarily, that this was a bad deal?"

Roberts said that while she didn't want to sue the city her family calls home, she wants city leaders to do what she believes is right. "You destroyed my property," she said. "Buy it and tear it down. You're using [my house] for storm drainage. You've encroached beyond your easement into my living room."

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