WECT Investigates: Oak Island property owners battle town over flooding issues

WECT Investigates: Oak Island property owners battle town over flooding issues

OAK ISLAND, N.C. (WECT) - Record-setting rainfall in 2018 caused headaches around the Cape Fear region and led to flooding that cost property owners thousands of dollars — and that was before Hurricane Florence dropped more than two feet of precipitation on the area.

In Oak Island, which received roughly 76 inches of rain from October 2017-September 2018, the downpours exposed and exacerbated ongoing issues with the town’s stormwater system that are still in the process of being fixed.

“It is all over the island,” said resident Karen Fullerton.

For Fullerton and her husband Phillip, dealing with flooding started almost immediately after they purchased their Oak Island home last April.

Phillip Fullerton surveys his flooded yard on Aug. 3, 2018.
Phillip Fullerton surveys his flooded yard on Aug. 3, 2018.

While still relatively new to the island, Fullerton said she quickly found out her issue is not an isolated one.

Her neighbor, Brian Seaman, said from February until long after Florence, his backyard was basically a pond.

“I understand last year was record flooding, but from basically February to way after the storm, there’s been nothing but water in our yards,” he said.

Across the street, Kathleen Markovic said the area has had flooding issues for years, but other than pumping the water into the street, the town hasn’t offered a solution.

Several of the NW 13th Street properties share a boundary with a public utility easement — which they say holds the runoff from the newly-developed homes around it.

Finding a Fix

For the last year, Fullerton said she and her husband have been in the process of trying to fix the ongoing flooding issues on their property, because they were told the issue was theirs, not something the town could handle.

In July and August of 2018, she said, the couple pumped more than 200,000 gallons of water out of their backyard, but knew a true fix would require filling in the property, and likely constructing a retaining wall.

That process was put on hold when Hurricane Florence dropped 26.98 inches of rain on the island, along with bringing 2.7 feet of storm surge.

“Ever since then, we’ve been getting the run-around, kind of sent on wild goose chases in every direction to get it fixed,” Fullerton said, “and I just feel a bit harassed, and bullied, actually.”

In October, the town issued Fullerton a permit to fill-in the property, and said she could submit the engineered fix at a later date given the delays contractors and the town were still seeing from the hurricane.

Engineers hired by the Fullertons proposed a fix to the stormwater issues that would reduce their flooding while not directing any water into neighboring properties, and it included a retaining wall to prevent sediment washing out of the yard.

The design, which she submitted to the town in February 2019, had the wall going to the edge of the Fullertons’ property, and thus into the utility easement.

Fullerton said that is when things started to go awry.

Steve Edwards, Development Services director for the town, said in emails to town manager David Kelly that the February submission was an amended permit request, and it was denied because instead of just filling the property in, it included the retaining wall and the encroachment of the easement.

Fullerton says it wasn’t an amendment but rather the same plan as submitted in October but with all the missing pieces.

“Everything was ready to go, after we had already spent several thousands of dollars for this remediation ourselves, that again followed all of their permitting, and in the eleventh hour they rescinded it.”

Fullerton said she received a letter in the mail informing her of the town’s decision at around the same time the contractor was beginning work on the project.

While she tried to work out the issue with the town, she said the contractor continued working, as he was concerned the coming rainy season would make completing the job nearly impossible.

Then, she said, her contractor was approached by a town employee and threatened with arrest if work was not stopped immediately.

“We just want to make it better, and we tried to make it better ourselves and were blocked,” she said, “and I don’t really understand why.”

Eventually, the Fullertons said they were forced to give up on the design from the engineers, and completed only the work in the original permit from October — something they fear will not provide the long-term flooding mitigation the property needs.

Stormwater Woes

While he said he did not want to comment on the Fullerton case, Kelly said stormwater issues are top of mind for the town.

“For years, as you know, we had droughts, and this past year we had the storms. And it showed that there are some things that needed to be addressed within the system,” he said.

Kelly said the installation of the town’s sewer system in 2009 — the fees to pay for which the town is still embroiled in a legal battle over — damaged some of the town’s stormwater infrastructure. Additionally, he said, Hurricane Florence generated 133 work orders, and 60 of those have yet to be resolved.

In January, the town council approved three new employees, Kelly said, will help with the workload.

For issues like the one on NW 13th Street, Kelly said they are doing what they can to help.

“What we’ve been trying to do is get people to bring the water up to the right-of-way, and then the town will convey it down the right of way, as we have ditches and piping, to be able to discharge that for them,” he said, but added: “But if they’re in a bowl, or something like that, there’s not a whole lot the town can do, except provide a service for them to bring their water to, something we’ve been trying to work on.”

Fullerton said that was the response she received from the town that led to her trying to do the work in the first place.

“The biggest frustration is, once the responsibility was put back on us as homeowners, we did everything to dot our “i”s, cross our “t”s, follow everything that the town staff and development office requested of us,” she said.

Red Tape

Fullerton, Seaman and others who spoke with WECT referenced the “red tape” they feel prevents residents from being able to help themselves.

“If nobody wants to do anything about it from the town, it’s our property,” Seaman said. “We should be allowed to do what we need to do to protect our property.”

However, he said, he feels like the town makes it difficult for the average person to do.

“You have to go through hoops and bounds, and when you buy a piece of property it should be yours to protect.”

Kelly denied that there is any “red tape” in the permitting process, but said the town is trying to look at the whole picture and keep one property owner from inadvertently damaging another.

“What we look at,” he said, “is [so] you’re not taking water from house No. 1 and flooding house No. 2. We have to make sure that the water is staying within the right of way, not just going down the street and flooding your neighbor. That is something that we’ve had to address to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Kelly said he also denies any allegations that developers are given preferential treatment.

“We treat everybody the same, it’s one application. Builders fill it out and residents fill it out,” he said. “Sometimes the developers know more about the applications, because they fill them out more often, but we do try to help the citizens or the first timers, to understand what we’re asking for, and what we need to make sure that everybody’s compliant.”

[Un]Happiness

Both Fullerton and Seaman have gone before the Oak Island Town Council to speak during the public comment period about their concerns and frustrations with the process but were disappointed with the lack of response.

Fullerton said one of her neighbors recently moved away from the island, because he had had enough with the flooding and “run around” with the town.

Seaman said the flooding issues have made him question his own decision to move there.

“I love Oak Island. There’s no place in the world I would rather be than Oak Island, but when I go in my backyard, I’m not happy no more, because I know what can happen, and I just want something taken care of,” he said.

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