An Uphill Battle: For More Than a Decade, Flood-Prone Slayton Hill Road Has Been a Headache for City, Residents
The hillside outside Thom Dabuque's home on Slayton Hill Road in Lebanon, N.H. is seen on August 14, 2013. Extremely heavy rain in early July caused extensive damage to the area. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage
Thom Dabuque leans on his temporary mailbox outside his home on Slayton Hill Road in Lebanon, N.H. on August 14, 2013. Extremely heavy rain in early July caused extensive damage to the area. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage
Dave McNamara, right, of engineeering company Fay, Spofford and Thorndike, talks to resident Doug Morse, left, during a walkabout of Slayton Hill Road on October 8, 2013. Members of the Lebanon Parks and Recreation department were joined by a team of engineers who have been contracted to develop a comprehensive plan to fix the damage. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
Lebanon — In September, when the city presented its plan for the reconstruction of flood-battered Slayton Hill Road, officials acknowledged what some residents have been saying for years — drainage on the road was inadequate and major improvements were needed.
At least as far back as 2002, when the road was undergoing reconstruction, and continuing through Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, residents of the steep and winding road off Mechanic Street have complained to the city about plugged catch basins, clogged ditches, heaving culverts, flooded lawns and washed-out driveways.
Then came July, when storms dumped more than 4 inches of rain on the notoriously damp Lebanon neighborhood over a 48-hour period.
The resulting torrent overwhelmed the road’s drainage system before cascading down Slayton Hill Road and slamming into the back of the Rivermere apartment complex — the 21-unit affordable housing complex at the base of the road that had opened just a week earlier — forcing the residents there to evacuate to emergency shelters.
When the water receded and the extent of the washout was assessed, Slayton Hill Road had accounted for the bulk of Lebanon’s public infrastructure damage, which could total from $6.5 million to as much as $10 million.
Images of stormwater roaring down the road, and the muddy, cratered landscape it left behind, shocked many in the city. But some longtime Slayton Hill Road residents were not surprised.
Public records show that, after the 2002 rebuilding project was completed, residents of the road called the Public Works Department to complain that the project may actually have made the drainage system worse.
They also complained that Public Works employees failed to respond to their calls in a timely manner.
City officials, for their part, have defended the 2002 project, contending that it addressed all of the needs at the time and emphasizing that the work was designed and completed by reputable engineers.
Further, they say, the road’s designation as “scenic” prompted a restrained approach to improvements.
A public records request by the Valley News unearthed a history of residents’ calls and multiple attempts by the Public Works Department to address the complaints — unplugging catch basins, replacing malfunctioning culverts, thawing frozen culverts and re-digging ditches.
Scenic Road Restrictions
In the late 1980s, in an effort to preserve some of its semi-rural character, the city began designating some of its roads as “scenic” as a way to establish greater oversight over changes to trees, stone walls and other features of the landscape within the right-of-way of certain roads. Slayton Hill Road — which is perched above the Rivermere complex overlooking the Mascoma River — was designated “scenic” in December 1993, one of seven such roads throughout the city.
Shortly after this year’s early July storms, Public Works Director Mike Lavalla cited the scenic road designation, as opposed to cost issues, as one of the primary reasons behind the limited 2002 reconstruction effort.
“The underlying consideration wasn’t financial,” Lavalla said. “It was more (about) what does the community want, what (the Department of Public Works) wants, and what the (City Council) thinks is appropriate. … Typically, we don’t begin at a dollar thing and say, ‘OK, we’ll back our way in there.’ ”
Bob Kline, the city engineer at the time of the 2002 reconstruction, also cited the scenic road designation, although he conceded that the cost of drainage upgrades factored more prominently into the decision.
“We might have been able to do something a little more, expand the ditches, make them deeper (without the scenic road designation),” Kline said. “I think it was a combination of the cost — and obviously we can’t have these engineers designing for 500-year storms — plus the restriction with the scenic road.”
A scenic road designation doesn’t prohibit the removal of trees or stone walls outside of the road’s footprint. Rather, such work requires a request from the city manager and approval by the Planning Board.
Senior Planner David Brooks said the only experience he has with overriding scenic road restrictions comes from working with utility companies performing tree clearing or other maintenance. Brooks said he could not recall an instance in which a city road improvement project went through the override process on a scenic road.
“You’d hope for a sort of context-sensitive design that would minimize the impacts where they can be minimized,” Brooks said. “But if there are going to be impacts — if there has to be impacts — then there’s a process to go through.”
Regarding the history of improvements since Slayton Hill Road was designated scenic, Lavalla said last month his department has “made every effort to honor the goals and community desires and expectations regarding preservation and maintenance on scenic roads.”
“As we move forward in the design process, we are engaging the community and respective boards as we balance the desired infrastructure improvements with the scenic road designation,” he said.
Expensive drainage improvements, such as upgrading and re-angling culverts, are now included in the current reconstruction plan.
Some residents of the road, which has nearly 40 homes, most with an assessed value of $200,000 to $300,000, have bristled at the prospect of losing chunks of their lawn to the project, or having septic systems affected by the work. But many others appear comfortable giving up some property in exchange for better drainage.
Call and Response
The reconstruction plan presented in September addresses some of the key issues that Slayton Hill Road residents have pointed to for the last decade: washout-prone roadside ditches, poorly draining catch basins, boulder-ridden soils and malfunctioning culverts, both at the ends of driveways and beneath the road.
Some on the road have emphasized that, despite consistent warnings, Public Works officials never addressed the causes behind the flooding or pursued improvements to the road beyond treating the symptoms of weather events.
“Whenever I talked to (Public Works officials), all I got was a quiet nod and a smile and absolutely no response to what I’ve asked for or commented about and said they needed to address,” said Earl Jette, a member of the city’s Planning Board who has lived on the road for more than 40 years. “It did not matter. They just didn’t listen.”
Jette’s focus has long been on roadside ditches, which he said were too narrow and shallow to adequately handle stormwater. Slayton Hill Road’s ditches — which ranged from 6 inches to 2 feet deep before reconstruction — were not significantly deepened and widened and actually were made shallower in certain areas during the 2002 reconstruction.
Each year, according to Jette, the ditches filled with sediment, and Public Works crews would show up to dig them out.
“Sometimes they didn’t even dig them out,” said Jette, who has a background in road construction. “Sometimes they used the backside of a bucket loader and just packed it down.”
Lavalla said crews sometimes “re-compact” material in the ditches when removing built-up silt if the stone that fortifies the ditch is re-usable. If they are placing new stone in the ditch, he added, the crews will also use the bucket of a backhoe or excavator to compact the material into the bottom and sides of the ditch.
The Public Works Department started recording resident complaints in 2005. Between then and the storms in early July, more than 25 residents on Slayton Hill Road or neighboring streets called to complain about drainage issues, according to city records.
One of the first recorded complaints — in October 2005 — came from Don Bourgeois, an electrical engineer who lives at the bottom of the hill at the intersection of Slayton Hill Road and Dulac Street. Bourgeois had called the department to complain about rainwater overwhelming the catch basin at the base of the road, crossing Dulac Street and flooding his property.
No Public Works Department response is detailed on the city’s record of the call.
Another Public Works record from September 2002, which was included in the Slayton Hill Road reconstruction project file but not in a wider public records request, indicated that Bourgeois “called the city engineer twice, and has yet to hear back.”
In August 2006, Bourgeois called again. The catch basin was still not draining properly and his yard was flooded again.
“He is concern(ed) about hav(ing) standing water on his yard,” the record states. “He would also like to know what the status of the output side of the drainage is. He would appreciate a call back, stated that nobody is returning his calls.”
Later that month, Public Works crews made a fix to help the catch basin drain more effectively. That improved things, Bourgeois said, but the drainage problem never completely went away.
Amelia Sereen, another longtime resident of Slayton Hill Road and former member of the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, also has a long history of calling the department about drainage issues. The first record of her contacting the department dates back to July 2006, when she called about her driveway culvert and wash-outs at the edge of her property.
“She indicates that this was a result of the construction project on Slayton Hill and it has been getting progressively worse,” the record states.
No Public Works follow-up is detailed in the record.
In January 2010, Sereen called again, this time complaining that the ditch along her property had washed out and the banks had been destabilized.
“Has lost screening plants so now from the road you can see into her house,” the record states. “These are issues that are the result of the Slayton Hill Road project. Would like it corrected.”
No response from the Public Works Department is mentioned in the record this time, either.
Sereen called again, this time in July 2011.
“Issue: driveway culvert, has been a problem since Slayton Hill was redone,” the record states. “Would like to be able to access driveway. Please look at it for either lowering or replacing.”
Nine days later, the department replaced the culvert.
Aside from heaving driveway culverts, which were problematic at several Slayton Hill homes, residents also frequently complained about culverts plugging up in the summer and freezing solid in the winter.
A typical record, from an anonymous Slayton Hill resident in March 2007, warned of two frozen culverts: “Caller called to report large amount of water running down the road by Jette’s and further up above,” the record states.
The next day, Public Works crews thawed the culverts.
Lavalla, who joined the Public Works Department when the 2002 redesign was in the preliminary phase, has acknowledged that Slayton Hill Road was a known “problem area.” As far as complaints about the department’s “Band-Aid” approach to drainage problems, Lavalla said, the department responded to complaints as they came in.
Lavalla said the Public Works Department does not have a specific threshold of resident complaints that would prompt action on road repairs or redesign.
“We have made every effort to address issues as they have arisen, including maintenance, repair and incremental enhancements to the drainage systems,” he said.
“Obviously, if you’ve got a history of problems in that area, you want to address it,” Lavalla said. “But whether it is one complaint or 10 complaints, we treat it all the same. ... When people register a complaint or a concern with us, we respond as quickly as we can to address it.”
‘The Best Way to Go’
The city’s formal process for large capital projects such as road reconstruction encourages input from those who live nearby.
In the case of the 2002 Slayton Hill Road project, there was even a special session of the City Council held for the purpose of soliciting public feedback, but some of those who participated in the process say they never felt as though they were truly being listened to.
Nancy Cohen — a former city councilor and Planning Board member who moved to Slayton Hill Road in 1960s — warned councilors and engineers at that time, after she had left city government, that they would need to remove large boulders from the right-of-way to fix the drainage problems, according City Council minutes from May 2002.
At a City Council hearing on June 19, 2002 — the last chance for residents to weigh in — Cohen, who had hired engineers to fortify her home against frequent flooding, pressed for a more comprehensive reconstruction of the road. The proposed solution, she told the council, wouldn’t fix the problem.
“Water was always an issue,” Cohen, who now lives in St. Johnsbury, Vt., said after the July flood. “A lot of times, the culverts just couldn’t take the flows and they would spill over. And of course it’s a rural road, so leaves and debris — including pine needles in the fall — would absolutely serve as a menace to those flows.”
Cohen said in 2002 that the clay soil and large boulders below the surface of the road could undermine reconstruction efforts. Boulders can get in the way of installing drainage features. Clay soil is known to saturate and cause water to “sheet” off its surface like a sponge that can’t absorb any more water. And when the water in the rocky soil freezes, engineers say, the earth expands and pushes the rocks up into the road, creating frost heaves.
Ralph Akins, who was mayor at the time of the 2002 reconstruction project, said the plan chosen by the City Council at the time represented a “middle of the road” solution that saved some money but also corrected most of the drainage problems — or at least promised to.
“It was going to work but it wasn’t going to be (this) grandiose thing,” said Akins, who is familiar with roadway construction from his background as a project manager for architectural firms and a project construction manager for developers.
In retrospect — though it wasn’t recommended by the engineers at the time — Akins said he believes blasting to remove obstructions and clear the way for more extensive drainage improvements would have been “the best way to go.”
“You can’t put culvert pipes in rock, and drainage ditches can’t be moved around in rock,” said Akins. “They have to be blasted out first.”
The current reconstruction plan is likely to involve the type of blasting Akins mentioned.
Some residents have criticized the city for its lack of major upgrades to the road in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, which in 2011 flooded Slayton Hill Road in similar patterns, though to a lesser extent, because of the same undersized concrete box culvert that plugged up and led to the July washouts.
“My god, that’s proof enough right there that (the culverts are) not suitable,” Jette said. “It’s not a big enough thing.”
Irene wiped out John Simone’s driveway, causing $5,000 in damage. Simone said the July flooding was worse, but he won’t estimate the cost of the damage until the city finalizes its reconstruction plans for the road.
After the 2011 storm, the Public Works Department repaired the ditches that had washed out in Irene, but did little to widen or deepen them.
“We repaired them basically in kind,” Lavalla said.
Federal Emergency Management Agency funding helped pay for the repairs, but those were meant only to restore the road to “pre-disaster conditions.” Lavalla said that did not entail upgrading the drainage system. The city is now pursuing FEMA funding for extensive upgrades to establish better drainage not included in the last reconstruction effort.
The city’s hired engineering consultants validated residents’ concerns about undersized culverts. The current reconstruction plan indicates that, of the 21 culverts that drain water from one side of Slayton Hill Road to the other, eight are significantly undersized.
Public records show that, even once the work was completed after Irene, there was an awareness in the Public Works Department that all was not well on Slayton Hill Road.
In fact, a department employee pointed to the potential for a major disaster just weeks before construction started on the Rivermere apartment complex.
City Engineer Christina Hall, writing in a May 2012 email addressing concerns raised by a consulting engineer, alerted her Public Works colleagues that problems with stormwater drainage could produce flooding at the Rivermere site. In particular, she responded to a concern from an engineer working on the Rivermere construction project over erosion of a ditch that carried water from a culvert and down around the apartment complex to the Mascoma River.
“Maybe we should go out together,” Hall wrote, suggesting an on-site visit to the road. “I’m not sure with a disaster if this (is) something we are responsible for?”
Hall said last week that, shortly after that exchange, Public Works employees met with engineers working on the Rivermere construction project to discuss how to slow erosion at the outlet of the culvert in question. Public Works crews later filled the ditch with stone.
Dave McNamara, senior principal engineer for the Massachusetts-based Fay, Spofford and Thorndike consulting firm, which is handling the current reconstruction project, said he could not comment in detail on the 2002 reconstruction work. “I don’t know what kind of data they had. I don’t know all the constraints they were under,” he said. “We haven’t really focused too much on how did it get here as much as, this is what it is and here’s what we feel it needs to be going forward.”
McNamara said he is still working on the final details of the upcoming reconstruction project, and last month he visited the road with city officials, knocking on doors to talk with residents.
One of those residents is Thom Dubuque, whose property sustained the heaviest damage during the July floods. He lost the lower portion of his driveway, which he installed only two years ago, and a large chunk of his front lawn was washed away. The stormwater carved out a dirt cliff that now leads down to a chasm on the side of the road.
And with each heavy rain, Dubuque said, erosion knocks off another foot or two from the edge of the cliff.
McNamara told Dubuque during his visit that a retaining wall would likely need to be built, but it’s unclear at this point how much of his lawn will be lost.
Dubuque said he had been thinking about selling his home in the spring, but the reconstruction won’t be done by then, so his plans are on hold. “I wouldn’t even attempt to sell it now,” Dubuque said. “Who would want it? They’d want it at wholesale.”
Resident John Topolewski, on the other hand, is focusing on the upside.
During McNamara’s visit, Topolewski said he’s hoping the project’s expanded ditches will mean that some of the “big and scary” trees on the edge of his property will finally be taken down.
“I know other people in different situations, but for me, I have plenty of lawn,” he said.
“Take some of my lawn. I’d have to mow less.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3213.