Know Where the Water Will Go — Avoid Damage Caused by Drainage Problems

It’s something every manager strives for and every resident demands — curb appeal. Maintaining it is one of the board’s fiduciary duties. But what happens when those flower beds, pathways and rolling hills turn into mud, ice and standing water? What if these problems pop up unexpectedly for no apparent reason?I spoke with engineer John Mele, from DW Smith Associates in Wall Township, New Jersey to obtain some insight on the underlying causes of these issues, drainage problems. Drainage problems can occur both before and after a transition from the developer to the homeowner board is complete.

Is it possible for a new community to ensure proper grading and drainage before the developer leaves? “Unfortunately, due to the way things are during the municipal review process, developers can only be obligated to provide whatever the municipal code, ordinance or residential site improvement standards requires,” said Mele. “There is a minimum standard established and in order to be cost-effective, the developer will usually meet that standard and nothing more. They can only be held to those standards.”

Usually, he said, things are fine for a number of years, however there are many factors that affect drainage issues. “There’s always something that can become problematic,” he said. Issues can arise when developers construct buildings too close together with little to no positive grading or drainage in between. Occasionally, soils with poor permeability or buried roots cause unforeseen erosion or settling. Or, he pointed out, a resident can customize something for their home or unit, like an in-ground pool, brick paver patio or some other type of outdoor amenity that will have a negative impact on drainage. These are just some examples of instances that can cause drainage issues in the future.

Some indicators of problems in new communities are areas where soil erosion wasn’t expected, when pockets of bare soil are discovered, or a minor creek is revealed cutting through what was supposed to be a lawn or wooded area. “These signs indicate that you need to improve the drainage design, before the problem gets worse,” said Mele.  There are instances when a developer will construct the finished floor elevation of units too low.  They’re savings on the extra course of block can cost the community a bundle over time, especially if the grades adjacent to the buildings are too flat or even worse, if they are back-pitched toward the buildings.  Mulch beds and sidewalks often restrict or even block stormwater from flowing away from the buildings, and roof leaders discharge stormwater right into these same problem areas.   

What if the community is built in phases? Can a finished phase be affected by subsequently built phases? “The drainage design for each phase is supposed to stand on its own,” he said. He used the recession of 2008 as an example of a time when projects weren’t getting finished and major developers were folding or merging as an example of how important it is for each phase to be designed as their own complete project, not dependent on the completion of other future phases. “Even before that recession happened, there was a protocol that if  phase three of a project gets constructed, and phase four never happens, that it can stand on its own. Phase three shouldn’t be affected by phase four or prior phases one or two,” he said.

If problems do arise from unforeseen circumstances, can a developer be held liable for elements such as parking areas, roads or landscaping, that deteriorate due to improper grading and or drainage? “Absolutely,” said Mele. “If a condition of municipal approval or a residential site improvement standard is violated and the performance bonds are still in place, the municipality has a mechanism in place to make the developer go back and fix the problem. But once those bonds get released, usually two years after construction work has been completed, municipal officials are more reluctant to get involved in disputes between a community association and a developer.” However, Mele also said that it’s in the best interest of a developer to go out and fix any minor problems. Addressing issues that can be fixed in single day of work or less can insure the integrity of the developer’s reputation in the municipality where they do business.

What are some signs of grading issues in more mature communities? “We all know that water travels along the path of least resistance. So any signs of soil erosion are definite indicators. A retaining wall that used to be upright which now is tilted forward. Window wells alongside the building where roof leader downspouts or upstream areas are now directing stormwater runoff—all of those items you can notice very quickly,” he said.

Mele also warned that landscaping, over time, can affect drainage. For example, when trees mature and make more shade than they did as saplings, drainage can be impacted. Because these larger trees give off more shade to an area, water in those areas will no longer evaporate as quickly. Now you could have a new area with standing water over the industry standard of 72 hours. “There’s issues with landscaping, over time, affecting rear yards more often. When you have multiple units back to back, between the shade and the leaves dropping in those areas, it simply causes the area to be more damp than they were when they were first constructed.”  In addition, communities frequently have a buffer of trees along the perimeter of the overall property.  Residents or landscapers will maintain the rear yards of the units but the leaves, ivy and undergrowth within the perimeter buffer often creates a small berm along the edge of the rear yards, preventing stormwater runoff from sheet flowing out of those rear yards.

Can smaller, patchwork fixes cause unforeseen issues elsewhere? Sometimes a smaller fix can simply be addressed by gravity, he said, based on where high points or low points are revealed to be in reference to the problem area during a field investigation. “Engineers are great, but they can’t make water flow uphill by gravity,” said Mele. Engineers may find it necessary to go ten units down from the problem area and meander around utility services, HVAC units or other road blocks before they can get to a new low point for a positive outlet. “We always do our visit with the association manager, so we discuss the options and all get on the same page. Usually you can figure out what your options are in a matter of minutes. Then it’s just a matter of putting pen to paper and developing a comprehensive plan specification.” 

How are problems addressed and fixed after transition? “When you are done going through transition, and it’s no longer on the developer to maintain roads, catch basins, retaining walls and other things, and it becomes the association’s problem — that’s when you need to hire an engineer, to capture what might become problematic down the road,” he said.

Is it necessary to inspect communities for drainage issues on a regular basis? “It’s always a good idea to do a walk through, at least every season. If you want to be a responsible manager of the community, hiring an engineer whenever you notice a significant drainage issue or even to simply to do a walk through with you after a community becomes five, ten or fifteen years old to capture any potential drainage problem areas before they intensify is never a bad idea,” said Mele.

What can association managers do on their own as a best practice? “If it is a simple community with no wet basins, dams, ponds or other significant drainage features, an occasional drive by inspection is a good practice,” said Mele. “For example, you’ll notice if there’s an area by the refuse enclosure that is always icing over, and think ‘someone is going to slip.’ Why wait for that to happen? Get an engineer out there to put in a trench drain and you are done. The liability is removed.” 

“A lot of times the boards or managers will do a walk through and then just look to their regular landscaper to fix the drainage problems, because they are already familiar with them, they are onsite every two weeks or so. In some instances, maybe that’s fine, but when you have grading directed towards a building, a slider door or a window well, or you have significant soil erosion issue, it’s in those instances that your best bet is to retain an engineer. Have them inspect it and provide a good proposal. Have a real solution instead of just a bandage over an infected cut.”

“Just throwing a wheel barrel or two of dirt on it? Now that water just went somewhere else. Get an engineer. Get it done right,” he said.