How can I fix my neighborhood's erosion problem?
September 4, 2006 6:41 PM   Subscribe

What are the best ways to fix a neighborhood's erosion problems, and how do you convince builders and developers to take those steps?

I bought a newly constructed home in a new neighborhood two months ago. Two other couples have also purchased homes in the neighborhood. The neighborhood is being built on a hill. My house is one of the homes at the bottom of the hill. The other neighbors are at the top.

The soil is red clay. My yard is sodded, and my neighbors' yards are sodded. Other than that, the entire neighborhood is made up of various homes in various degrees of construction, and a big hill made of red clay.

The neighbors behind me have a retaining wall made of railroad ties with a fence on top. I have a treated lumber retaining wall halfway through my yard, with a fence surrounding it. The other neighbor has a retaining wall and a fence.

Being summer, we have had several intense thunder storms. During these thunder storms, one neighbor developed a sink hole in their yard. The other had the red clay wash away from the sides of their fence, as have I, and I have had mud from all the home sites cover a great deal of my yard. It comes from under my fence, and through a "silk fence" that my home builder has strung between my property and the property next door.

We got over two inches of rain this afternoon in a two hour period, and the neighbor's railroad tie retaining wall behind me started spouting water and sand all over my backyard (apparently they back-filled with sand rather than gravel). I have also had additional mud coming down from under my fence and under the silk fence. The neighbors with the sinkhole have not gotten that repaired, and the neighbors above me that have the railroad tie retaining wall's fence is about to fall over because they have lost so much soil to erosion.

After it stopped raining, my wife and I went to talk to our neighbors, and we decided to get the subdivision's developer, our builders, and the real estate agent together this week to see if we can get the problems fixed. I talked to the developer tonight who said that he has already deeded the property over to the builders, and that it is their fault for not putting up enough silk fence, but that he would come to the meeting as long as the builders were there.

What I need from all those that have been nice enough to read all this are ideas about how to fix the problem, and how to make these people take those actions. What do neighborhoods on hills do to not have mudslides when it rains? What should we ask for? Secondly, how do we make them do this? Whose responsibility is it? Who licenses these people (this is in Columbia, SC) and will they listen if we complain? Is the developer responsible? Do yards come with warranties? Do retaining walls? If so, how do you enforce them? Both myself and my neighbors keep being told that it will get fixed, but nothing has been done. It seems as if the builders do not wish to do anything unless they absolutely have to.

Finally, for all the "get a lawyer immediately" people. I am a lawyer. I graduated from law school last year, and I know nothing about this area of law. I also don't have the requisite trial observations to be able to represent anyone in court without a lawyer who does there with me (my work does not require me to go to court). There are several people in my life who seem to think that merely because I am a lawyer that I can wave a magic wand and fix all this. I suppose if the meeting falls through, that taking someone to court will be my next step, but I don't know who to sue, what cause of action to sue them for, or even where the damn court house is (pretty sad, I know).

So, if you have any experience with collectively making people do what they should have done to begin with, or with erosion, or with builders, or with developers, I would love some advice. The meeting will be one evening this week, and I would like to have some ideas of what to ask for, and how to make it happen by then. Thanks in advance. As you can tell, this is a pretty sucky situation.
posted by ND¢ to Home & Garden (11 answers total)
Response by poster: I don't know if this will work or not, but here is an imagestation album that my mother-in-law created that has pictures of the damage.
posted by ND¢ at 6:53 PM on September 4, 2006

This happened to some friends of mine that live on a hill and they (uphill neighbors) ended up putting long french tile drains across their property that takes excess water out to the front street, but in severe weather, it can't keep up and water does wash down to the downhill neighbor.

Unfortunately, their downhill neighbor isn't pleased with the result and is suing them, so I'd strongly suggest getting everything in writing from your builders and neighbors, whatever you decide to do in this meeting. Any one of them could always come back and say it was just a verbal agreement and yadda, yadda.

Get agreements in writing.
posted by mathowie at 7:28 PM on September 4, 2006

Best answer: First of all, erosion control fences are called "silt" fences, not "silk" fences, because they aim to stop the erosion of soil into groundwater streams, which, once suspended in water, is known as silt.

Next, you need to find out what agencies in your area are responsible for erosion control and water quality, as the level of erosion you appear to be experiencing may exceed standards. But this is heavily dependent on the development plan for the land, as only off-property erosion and water quality issues can generally be a basis for intervention of regulatory bodies, unless federal wetlands are in issue. If the developer owns the whole hillside, and is controlling the migration of sediment offsite, without creating other water quality problems downstream, the authorities may not care whether the hill clay slowly covers your grassy lawn.

At a minimum the developer will probably have to file for development permits, and his mandated erosion control measures, such as silt fences, and his permissible sediment loads will have been specified in his permit documents. You should, I think, pull copies of these permits and read them before your meeting, as a basis for preparing correspondence to the developer outlining your problems. If the developer doesn't follow up with acceptable erosion control measure after you contact him, you then may have some recourse through the permitting agencies, before going to court.
posted by paulsc at 7:28 PM on September 4, 2006

Also, getting some advice from a professional soils engineer in your area is probably worth his consulting and travel costs, particularly if you aren't familiar with erosion mitigation.
posted by paulsc at 7:36 PM on September 4, 2006

ianal, but I know more than a little about geology, and what you're describing is bad, bad juju. Silt fences aren't going to help much besides the cosmetic containment of surface soil. Surface culverts would be a good step. Your lumber "retaining wall" isn't properly constructed. But more to the point, I think this development may be in a profoundly poor geological placement.

You definitely need to obtain legal counsel and a new geological survey of the development. This reeks of poor inspections and/or paid-off officials. Start here.
posted by frogan at 7:52 PM on September 4, 2006

You need vegetation (not grass) to hold the soil in place. Vegetation typically doesn't like to grow on plain clay or sand so you probably need soil amendments and just in general an expert on getting stuff to grow asap on poor soils. Bioengineering and soft erosion control are the key words to search for here.

The builder/ developer may have to do an erosion control project asap if they're violating laws.
posted by fshgrl at 8:17 PM on September 4, 2006

Best answer: Licensing info in South Carolina for contractors, residential buildiers and others can be found here.
posted by chiababe at 10:00 PM on September 4, 2006

Best answer: I live in a hillside property in CA, so I have a little bit of experience with this, however SC laws are undoubtedly different to CA ones. The first thing to do is go to your local planning department, pull the geological survey and soils report for your house (or maybe the whole development). Talk to the people there about the local requirements, express your concerns, see what they suggest and who they consider responsible. You may have to arrange an appointment, no idea how SC compares to CA in this regard. You may not be able to take copies with you, in which case, try and arrange to have someone there talk you through the reports. Takes copies of the reports, or make notes and make sure the builder followed the recommendations (final permits should have checked this, but check for yourself just in case).

After the meeting, if you are still worried this will not be fixed properly, then contact another independent geological engineer, get them to come out and do a survey of the property. This is fairly expensive, but if you club together with your neighbours you may be able to get a bit of a discount for doing all the properties at one time. Compare his/her report with the one the developer/builder submitted, ask for his/her advice about the situation. Our geological engineer walked through the property with us, explained how the geology of the area worked, showed us maps, showed us examples fo the hillside geology that is exposed on a neighbours driveway, did historical research beforehand into any issues reported within the general area, advised us of how our house is situated in relation to problem areas of the hillside, took photos, sent a report a couple of weeks later with all that plus explanations of potential future hazards to look out for, recommendations to fix/prevent problems, and all the historical info too. It was well worth the money.
posted by Joh at 10:53 PM on September 4, 2006

Oh yes, and if you feel the meeting is going in an unsatisfactory direction, you can always find a way of mentioning that you are a lawyer. This is enough to scare many businesses into getting their act together. Even if you don't have expertise in this area, most people expect that all lawyers have lawyer friends who will do. No need to shatter their illusions :)
posted by Joh at 10:57 PM on September 4, 2006

If you are handy, you may want to go to the local Menards or equivalent and buy some silt fencing yourself. Place it on the edge of your property where you get silt damage and then invoice the contractor for the cost of the materials. Take it to small claims if necessary.

Unfortunately the downside to living in a brand new subdivision where much of it is under construction is this type of thing if not worse things. Hopefully you don't find out about any surprises after everything is done and the contractor has pulled up stakes.
posted by JJ86 at 6:05 AM on September 5, 2006

Best answer: Yikes, your retaining wall scares me. It looks like the project engineers may have seriously underestimated your subdivision's drainage needs.

Before you start researching soil types and so forth, you should follow paulsc's advice and start with the basics. The EPA regulates stormwater runoff in South Carolina by delegating authority to the state, which is then responsible for enforcing the NPDES permit your developer had to obtain before starting work.

You need to contact your NPDES permitting people and ask for an inspector to visit the property. I used to work as a stormwater inspector and always visited complaint sites very promptly.

If you don't get a rapid and satisfactory response from the state, you may want to contact a local or state representative and ask for help since your problem is so severe. Calls from elected officials always lit a fire under MY boss.

If any silt-laden runoff is leaving the site, the state should issue a Notice of Violation to the contractor and force them to fix the problem. The state can also choose to fine the developer and/or issue a stop-work order if the problem continues. The problem is not considered fixed until there is no silt leaving the site during rain events.

You have a photo that shows a street filled with muddy water. That alone counts as "leaving the site" because the street has storm drains that lead into the nearest stream, so your builders are definitely breaking the law.

Here's the relevant contact info:

Marion Sadler
Industrial, Agricultural and Stormwater Permitting Division
Bureau of Water
2600 Bull Street
Columbia, SC 29201
(803) 898-4167

Good luck!
posted by naomi at 7:35 AM on September 5, 2006

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