Here's an interesting (at least to me) property rights dispute taking place in a Columbus suburb that raises some questions about the timing of development and the externalities it may cause. The short version, to what extent are downstream developers/homebuyers expected to be able to predict the effects of future upstream development on their property in the future? Or maybe better: Is 'I got here first' a legal claim to compensation?
The main draw of a Gahanna subdivision — a scenic creek — has become its greatest danger, threatening trees, fences and backyards.
The banks of Souder Ditch are eroding as its flow increases, and city officials want to fix it before it causes any more damage. That could cost local taxpayers $250,000 if the city doesn’t get a state grant.
Residents “are finding what they thought was a gentle, meandering brook through their backyards is suddenly a raging torrent of water,” said City Engineer Karl Wetherholt.
From Christie Nickell’s deck 10 yards from the creek, the water runs so loudly that it can be heard over the telephone.
“It’s beautiful back here. It’s so nice,” Nickell said. “It’s exactly the reason why we moved here.”
But that was 12 years ago. Back then, the 3-foot-wide stream dried to a trickle during the summer. These days, it’s twice as wide and runs year-round, taking down trees and pushing debris through the subdivision during heavy rain.
The Nickells have lost four trees. They paid $30,000 to put up a retaining wall, although it has helped only on one side. The erosion has created sewer problems, exposed an underground power line and is eating away at a century-old bridge. In one of the worst instances, there’s a 20-foot drop from a home’s backyard to the creek.
In all, Wetherholt thinks the erosion area directly affects about a dozen or so homes between Ashley Court and Farm Creek Drive.
The stream, a tributary of Rocky Fork Creek, has moved faster over the years because of runoff from developments north in Jefferson Township. Also, homeowners in the subdivision mow their lawns all the way to the creek instead of allowing room for natural plant life along the banks that could slow storm runoff.
“It would’ve been very difficult for people to predict this, especially if they bought the house and moved in during drought conditions, which occurred in the early 1990s,” Wetherholt said. The city is applying for a grant from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to help pay for a detention basin in Gahanna Woods, which should cut down the stream’s flow by about 30 percent. In all, officials expect it to cost $250,000, which includes a multipond wetland and walking trails.
The city will go ahead with the plans even if it doesn’t get the state money, Wetherholt said. The city also is paying more than $52,000 for a study to determine how much erosion has occurred, how bad the damage could get and what can be done to stop it permanently.
Meanwhile, Nickell and other residents have been fighting development efforts that could add even more water to their creek. A developer who wanted to build homes upstream on Havens Corners Road recently withdrew his application after protests.
“We’re trying to find a way that everybody can be happy,” Nickell said. “They can still develop, but as long as they’re not devaluing our property.”