Homeowner blames new construction for backyard flooding

I-TEAM found Duval Co. rules could lead to more properties getting swamped

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The I-TEAM is exposing a countywide issue for Duval homeowners who live near newly developed subdivisions built on wetlands: flooding.

Jacksonville homeowners living near new construction say their backyards are swamped because the natural water table is being disturbed during the construction.

The I-TEAM started looking into neighbors' claims of flooding and drainage issues that they say were caused by a new housing development called San Jose Estates in Lakewood. We then learned the city of Jacksonville, the developer, and the St. Johns Water Management District followed all the right steps in the permitting process, but one city councilwoman says it's that permitting process itself that is broken.

Homeowner fed up with flooding

David Robison showed the I-TEAM his backyard. Even though it had not rained in days when we spoke with him at his home, we saw a swampy mess.

"This is all groundwater that is just upwelling along here," Robison showed us. "All this right here, it's coming out."

He claims when the developers who planned to build San Jose Estates cleared the wetlands to make room for six new houses, the developers disturbed the natural water table and the way the water used to drain to nearby Christopher Creek.

"Moving water. It hasn't rained. This is a perpetual swamp here," said Robison.

But he said it's not just causing a problem on the outside. He took the I-TEAM inside his home to show us the visible damage to his floors.

"You can see how it's slightly buckled here," said Robinson pointing out specific places on his floor. "And this is swelling because the water is coming up through the concrete, where there was never a water table before."

Robison claims the higher water table is penetrating the concrete under this house. He blames the developers, Feras Mouded and James O'Nan, and the St. Johns River Water management district, for his and his neighbors' flooding problems.

"I don't know what is going on, but this is the most unsupervised and Wild West project I've ever seen," said Robison.

After nearly a year of being swamped, Robison said he took matters into his own hands -- spending $35,000 to raise his backyard three feet above the water table. He filled his backyard with dirt and gravel, and then installed a four-foot retaining wall -- separating his property.

Robinson has filed a lawsuit against the developers, demanding they repay him for his backyard improvements.

His lawsuit outlines some of the other effects of the drainage changes, such as "lingering odors" that are "the result of the constant ponding and pooling of wastewater and groundwater, which include a layer of froth and foam."

And the suit states the standing water "attracts and serves as a breeding ground for mosquitos during the warmer months" adding "snake activity" is also a problem.

Councilwoman wants process for development to change

District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer said Robison's problem is part of a bigger issue that the I-TEAM has identified at least three different Jacksonville neighborhoods. According to Boyer's office, Cherry Lakes, the Saddlewood subdivision and Avery Park have been plagued with similar issues.   

"We have projects like this all over the city where there are areas that have formerly been wetlands, and have now been filled, and is impacting the drainage of adjacent, previously developed subdivisions," Boyer told the I-TEAM. 

The councilwoman said turning wetlands into housing developments is risky because of the potential environmental effect -- telling us the real problem is hidden in the process of how these building permits are approved.

Boyer said the St. Johns River Water Management District approved the environmental resource permit for San Jose Estates, but she said the agency's focus was only on the quality of the water and the impact to surrounding rivers and creeks. 
She said it's the developer's engineer who is required to present the plan for drainage to the city of Jacksonville, who in turn approves it -- based on whether or not the design from the developer's engineer looks like it will work.

"Approval of the initial site drainage plan rests with the city, and the standard for that is that an engineer is supposed to design a system that maintains the status quo that what it was before development and after development is the same," explained Boyer. 

However, Boyer wants change. She said she doesn't want the plan from the developer's engineer to be the final say. Her solution is a task force with an independent engineer, who will ensure that there is no negative impact to nearby properties.

Boyer wants the wetlands like these to be protected. 

"I'd like to see them be preserved as conservation land and not be developed," she explained.

For now, according to Boyer, there's no recourse for homeowners like David Robison, other than to file a civil lawsuit -- which he's done.

The I-TEAM has reached out multiple time to Feras Mouded and David O'Nan -- the developers of San Jose Estates. We will update this story when we hear back.

About the Authors:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.