Flashpoint flooding: Hubbard development leads to severe flooding, political divisiveness
Jeff and Amy Stewart say they are at their wit's end with the city of Hubbard.
The couple, who own a refurbished farmhouse located on a 1.5-acre property inside Hubbard city limits, believe a neighboring development built earlier this year caused more than 3 million gallons of water to flow onto their property last winter. But they don't blame the developers — the couple blames the city for signing off on the project without first ensuring the development's storm water drainage system was up to code.
(This story was first reported on by KOIN 6, a news partner of the Woodburn Independent.)
The Stewarts bought their property and moved to Hubbard in 2012. They said they were warned when they purchased it that some flooding was possible toward the north end of the property, which is a large grass field.
They saw that flooding in action before they purchased the property, when some rain collected in the back of the field.
"We said OK, we've had a lot of rain," Jeff Stewart said. "There had been 8 inches in a month, so that's going to happen. It's kind of a low spot."
But this past winter, the Stewarts began to experience flooding that didn't seem proportional to the amount of rain that was falling.
In 2012, there was 8.55 inches of rainfall in the area between February and March. That much rainfall caused the amount of flooding the Stewarts witnessed upon purchasing the property. This year, there was a similar amount of rainfall between January and February — 9.55 inches. But the amount of flooding was drastically different.
Parts of the Stewarts' property were under 3 feet of water. The family's barn, which is located on higher ground and closer to their house, was flooded with 16 inches of water.
The Stewarts immediately suspected the development behind them might be the cause.
Before January this year, that property was an empty field, which the Stewarts said had lots of permeable ground to soak up the rain. But the city approved a 2.79-acre mobile home storage facility in 2015, and the concrete flatwork for the property was completed in January 2017.
At first, Jeff Stewart said he thought the flooding might be due to the facility's drainage system not being fully installed. He quickly learned that wasn't the case.
"I went over to the property owner, who said it's built exactly how it's supposed to be," he said.
A city of Hubbard staff report on the property's development application, which was given to the Planning Commission in March 2015, reads, "The proposed development significantly increases the amount of impervious surface on the property. The site plans that stormwater will be detained at the southeast corner of the property. Based on comments from Public Works, staff recommends a condition of approval that applicant submit a drainage plan prepared by a licensed engineer."
The developer contracted with an engineer, who submitted plans for drainage. The city approved the plans, and Jeff and Amy Stewart think they shouldn't have.
"A lot of it is just common sense," Jeff Stewart said.
The development behind them is sloped to drain into catch basins and a detention pond, which drains into a detention pond. The detention pond isn't designed to hold water — it simply holds back storm surges and releases the water at a slower rate.
The detention pond is designed to drain into a ditch by the railroad tracks running along the west side of both the Stewart's and the RV storage facility properties. Culverts run under the railroad tracks, and are supposed to mitigate the water.
But the problem, the Stewarts say, is that their property is still the lowest place for water to go.
"The other side of the tracks is higher than our property," Jeff Stewart said. "No one did their due diligence to find out if the side of the tracks is higher or lower than our property."
Once the Stewarts realized it wasn't poor building practices on the part of the property owner causing the flooding, they reached out to the city, who the Stewarts say directed them to the Public Works Director.
"He's trying to convince me that water's going to go across the railroad tracks," Jeff Stewart said. "And as I'm standing out there in knee-deep water, I'm saying, 'No, it's not. The other side is dry and my side is wet.'"
Feeling stuck, the Stewarts obtained an emergency permission from the Oregon Department of Transportation to pump water into a ditch running along Highway 99E. And they purchased an electric pump and 400 feet of pipe.
When that system didn't make much of a difference, he made an appeal to the city's Mayor Thia Estes, who the Stewarts say visited the property and agreed there was a problem.
The Stewarts say Estes, who has not responded to requests for comment, pushed the city's Public Works department to loan the family a gas-fueled pump with a lot more power.
For weeks, pumping water off the property became part of the family's routine — it required re-fueling almost every three hours.
According to what Jeff Stewart says are conservative calculations, the family had pumped 2,793,600 gallons off of the property.
The Stewarts have asked the city to issue a stop work order to the developer that would require the property owner to design a new drainage system. In response, the city wrote,
"We understand that your property experienced significant flooding last winter and spring, which leads you to believe, as a 'layperson' (your words), that the design did not have 'adequate capacity to carry necessary flow.' However, the engineer for the Development designed and the City Engineer reviewed the plans … they concluded the Development met the design standard in question. Neither you nor City staff have the requisite expertise to contradict this conclusion."
The Stewarts have also gotten help from a family aquantaince, a lawyer specializing in water and property law. That lawyer wrote a demand letter to the city that construction be stopped at the property until the drainage system is reviewed.
But in some ways, that caused city staff to even further shut down the Stewarts' pleas for help.
"At that point, every city council meeting I went to, every planning commission I went to, I would get no answers," Jeff Stewart said. "Because the city attorney would say, 'He has a lawyer, we can't talk to him.' Which I think is an excuse. I don't think they would have talked to me either way."
Now, construction of the development is complete. The Stewarts say Mayor Thia Estes had emailed city staff requesting that final occupancy of the property not be approved.
The Stewarts say final occupancy was issued anyway.
"They gave final occupancy over the objections of the mayor," Jeff Stewart said.
Jeff and Amy Stewart say they've spent many hours researching laws, submitting public records requests and seeking answers. And they say the experience has been educational.
"We've learned a lot about drainage systems and we've also learned a lot about city government," Stewart said. "And it's been pretty surprising. Like, who's in charge over here?"
In response to KOIN 6 News' request for comment, the city of Hubbard issued a statement, saying it was "sympathetic."
"While Mr. Stewart would have preferred for the City to have halted construction on his neighbor's property, the City had no legal authority to do so since the construction was completed in accordance with applicable standards. The bottom line is that we experienced record rainfalls last winter and spring and the Stewart's property is at the low-lying area for numerous surrounding properties."
-The City of Hubbard
The Stewarts disagree with that reasoning, referring to the amount of flooding they experienced in 2012. "We didn't nearly have flooding of that magnitude," Jeff Stewart said. "We know that it's a low spot and that in long periods of rain it does hold some water. And the city knows that."
In the meantime, the Stewarts aren't sure what to do now that the rainy season is approaching. They say the city's told them they won't be able to borrow the gas-powered pump again. And they're waiting for the Oregon Department of Transportation to consider a plan proposed by the developer and his engineer that would permanently drain the water on the property into the ditch along 99E.
"We're in a holding pattern because we have to see if ODOT will approve a new plan," Jeff Stewart said. "And if ODOT says no, which is well within their rights …l we have no idea what our next step will be."
Mayor Thia Estes, City Councilor Shannon Schmidt and City Councilor Bradley Williams resigned soon after the KOIN 6 story was aired, and all of their resignation statements included references to the KOIN 6 story.
In his resignation statement, Williams cited the city submitting a press release without the mayor's approval as one reason for his resignation.
"The Mayor is supposed to be the spokesperson for the City; however, the Council President and Staff chose to have the city attorney make a statement to the press. We are not required to make statements to the press in order to meet a news station's deadline. They should have waited for the Mayor's input," Williams wrote. "Some of the language that was used in the press release and a previous statement to the Stewart's sounded condescending and that's not the image that I would want our city to project. If the mayor had used those same words, the pitchforks and torches would have come out from the same people that now defend those words."
Estes released a statement to KOIN 6 on Tuesday, before her resignation.
"I have pushed for meetings between all parties since the beginning of this issue, and that the city recognize and acknowledge any area we need to make changes in, and to bring that to Council for review… It has been of absolute frustration to me that the Stewart's had yet to receive answers, and that my questions and concerns and that of Council member Williams and Council member Schmidt were largely ignored."
-Former Mayor Thia Estes
For coverage on Hubbard resignations see: