Heavy rain can be an inconvenience, causing a missed tee time or delays mowing the lawn, but it is a source of high anxiety for residents of Hilliard's Hillcrest neighborhood.
"The worry never leaves," said Mary Lou Wood, who with her husband, Tom, has lived on Hillcrest Street South since 1964.
The Woods and several of their neighbors on Hillcrest Street South and nearby streets said they have experienced multiple incidents of basement flooding and sanitary-sewer backups during heavy rains – usually when 2 to 3 inches fall in less than two hours – and the incidents have become more frequent.
They have asked Hilliard officials for help and pressed them for a response, filling rows of seats in Hilliard City Council chambers on multiple occasions.
The problem, city officials say, is that many of the required fixes are on the residents' private property and the flooding is caused by foundation drains that were installed improperly decades ago.
The question is whether the city can – or should – earmark part of its budget to assist with private-property repairs.
Butch Seidle, Hilliard's public-services director, and Tracy Bradford, the city's law director, said the city never before has set aside money to assist homeowners with the installation of backwater valves or other kinds of home-based flood control.
"It's up to City Council. It is their decision," Seidle said. "Staff does not have opinions on what council should do. We provide reports on cost and potential impacts on capital-improvement needs so council can then provide guidance and directions given the solutions (that) include work on private property that otherwise is the property owner's responsibility."
The basement flooding has two causes, Seidle said.
Although some maintenance is necessary in portions of the city's sanitary-sewer lines, the residents' problems are amplified because foundation drains were improperly tied into the sanitary-sewer system, Seidle said.
The city is responsible only for maintenance of lines in the public right of way, Seidle said, and the foundation drains are on private property.
"When many of these homes were built, it was customary and accepted plumbing procedure to tie basement foundation drains into the home's sanitary-sewer service line," said Clark Rausch, the city's engineer. "The foundation drain collects groundwater, so ... tying a foundation drain into a sanitary sewer introduces groundwater into the sanitary sewer-service line, (which) can inundate it during heavy rains. (The tie-ins) take away the pipe's capacity to carry sanitary sewage and cause the pipe to fill up faster."
In addition, a survey of the city's public sewers determined 46,370 linear feet of sewer lines are in "poor" or "very poor" condition in the Hilliard Outfall sewer system, a specific system that serves the Avery, Beacon, Colonial Lanes, Conklin, Luxair and Hillcrest subdivisions and the Old Hilliard district.
"The Hilliard Outfall sewer system (is) the sewer system that we receive the most sewer backup complaints on," Rausch said.
The survey indicates it would cost $1.8 million to repair those sections.
"These repairs to the 'poor' and 'very poor' sections would consist of lining sections of public sewer between successive manholes but not lining the entire Hilliard Outfall sewer system," Rausch said.
"Lining" consists of the placement of a thin PVC or polyethylene liner inside the sewer pipe and requires no digging, Rausch said.
"A liner restores the structural integrity to the existing pipe by making the wall thicker (and) also eliminates pipe joints in the existing sewer," he said.
The Hilliard Outfall system is constructed with clay pipes about 3 inches to 4 inches in length, resulting in many joints where tree roots can penetrate and allow groundwater to enter, Rausch said.
The city did not consider or price the alternative of digging up and replacing the sewer lines, Rausch said, because it would be more disruptive to the streets and more costly.
It would cost $5.5 million to repair the entire 131,700 linear feet in the Hilliard Outfall sewer system, he said.
Meanwhile, City Council President Albert Iosue wants time to observe the effects of a recently approved repair to the Hilliard Outfall system.
City Council on June 25 authorized emergency legislation for a $325,000 repair to a sanitary-sewer line near Scioto Darby Executive Court after blockages were discovered.
"That may resolve the problem," Iosue said.
The city routinely considers paying damage claims related to sewer backups.
As of early June, three claims had been made with the city and one claim was denied, Bradford said, though the city reopened the denied claim after a contractor discovered roots growing in the sewer line close to Scioto Darby Executive Court.
"We will be settling these four claims with the claimants through our insurance company or by the city directly," she said.
City Councilman Pete Marsh said council members were notified the last week of June the four claims would be paid.
Iosue said Bradford approved the claims because the city could not guarantee the blockage discovered in the sanitary sewer did not contribute to the backups in residents' basements.
"The law department evaluates every claim, and if it determines that there is potential fault, the city will pay the claim," Iosue said.
But the homeowners are wanting more, potentially including the cost to install sump pumps, second pumps or backwater valves that could reduce frequency, mitigate magnitude or eliminate flooding, and they hope city leaders will consider assisting them.
There is precedent for cities doing so, according to Ryan Gross, who has lived on Outer Street in the Hillicrest neighborhood for more than a decade.
Gross, who was one of the damage claimants and confirmed the city paid his claim to cover a $1,000 insurance deductible, said he learned Columbus, though a program called Blueprint Columbus, makes repairs designed to prevent sanitary-sewer overflows.
Leslie Westerfelt, communications manager for Blueprint Columbus, said the improvements should reduce basement flooding.
Blueprint Columbus is a $1.7 billion, 20-year program to upgrade sanitary sewers in 17 neighborhoods and originated from an Environmental Protection Agency mandate, she said. The program launched in Clintonville last year.
Columbus helps residents in a more direct way through Project Dry Basement, Westerfelt said.
If a resident has at least three flooding incidents, the owner is eligible to apply for financial assistance toward installation of a sump pump or backwater valve, she said.
Gross said because the backups in Hilliard are a health risk, any precedent for private repairs would be for the specific set of circumstances surrounding the flooding.
He said he and his neighbors are not asking for tax dollars to be used for other private repairs for which homeowners are responsible, such as sidewalks, but sanitary sewers are an exception because of the health implications.
Marsh said he is open to the idea of setting aside funds to help residents.
"One thing I'd like council to consider is some type of grant program where we can take some of the burden of the cost of the homeowner making a repair," he said. "I think it'd be a good move for council to consider helping them to alleviate the problem."
Marsh said he was not concerned such a program would set a precedent.
"I do not have an issue with the precedent that it would set if City Council were to develop a grant-style program to assist homeowners in the impacted area with improvements that might minimize backups in the future," he said. "Obviously, the program requirements would have to be robust, the eligible area clearly (be) defined and (have) a specific timeframe for applications. If those requirements are met, I think we could develop a successful program. If after the blockage is cleared, residents continue to have issues, I think that the grant program is worth considering.
"In the meantime, we definitely hope that clearing the (Scioto Darby Executive Court) blockage solves the problem."
Iosue said if the sanitary-sewer backups continue to occur and the cause cannot be determined, the city should contribute toward solving that problem.
"I do not object to putting money aside to assist residents with these issues," he said.
Iosue said it even could be a topic for City Council's planning retreat in August.
Meanwhile, Rausch has provided City Council with several funding scenarios that would be necessary to meet any obligations members might choose, either to increase the city's ability to make obligated repairs or to further residents with their own upgrades.
The scenarios include increasing surcharges on water bills and sanitary-sewer bills.
The city's 2018 capital-improvements budget includes two sanitary-sewer projects, with $184,500 set aside for an annual sanitary-sewer cleaning and televising program and $186,700 for the annual sanitary-sewer lining program.
But Rausch cautions that lining is not a panacea.
Repairing only the lining "still may not eliminate enough of the groundwater and foundation-drain water in the sewers to make a significant difference in the capacity of the pipes," he said.
Such scenarios are something Iosue said he wants to explore before deciding how to allocate any money.
Iosue said he is not convinced improperly installed foundation drains are a singular or direct cause for the backups residents have experienced.
When asked if he would consider allocating funds toward private-property improvements, he replied, "I'm not saying I would not consider it (but) I want to learn more."
When asked if there is concern for setting a precedent by assisting residents with private-property fixes, council Vice President Kelly McGivern said she was not prepared to decide yet.
"If the city is clearly at fault for the damages, then we need a process for compensating them," she said. "However, the threshold to determine liability needs to be clear before we hand out taxpayer dollars.
She said she "would need to get more information about other city's grant programs before she would take a position."