May 9, 2014

I can’t help but have that catchy Law & Order theme song in my head when I think about the court cases where I’ve been called in to serve as an expert witness. (bum bum. bum bum bum bum bum bummmm. Buh Buh. Bum bum bum bum bum bummmm) Based on more than 25 years as a civil engineer focused in site design, I’ve been called to investigate several cases where there are alleged site development issues related to storm water detention, downstream neighbor’s drainage, and/ or sidewalk trip and falls.

With the crazy winter weather, the onslaught of spring storms and recent flooding events in the Southeast, storm water detention issues can be a year-round concern. As the issues are experienced, it has been interesting to see what types of cases have been brought by property owners and developers to court for judgment. In some instances, if a different design or development solution had been delivered, the issues in question could have been avoided. In other instances, the issues and/or damages would have happened regardless of the design. And in still other instances, the design had no relation to the issues and/or damages being reviewed. In all these cases, having reviewed the various designs against the claims presented, I have been able bring back a renewed perspective to our own practice here at Gresham Smith.

Three issues or areas that I’ve seen time and again when it comes to storm water detention and drainage cases include:

1.) Existing problems on site or on adjacent property
Learn what storm water detention problems may exist on the site you are developing as well as on adjacent property before you begin the project.  Is your site a collection area for run-off from an adjacent site? When making improvements to your site and accounting for storm water detention, how will changes to your site impact their run-off and run-off even further downstream?

Often times our teams are in contact with owners/ developers of adjacent property throughout the design and construction process. This open line of communication can help to mitigate issues and keep everyone aware of site improvements and how those could impact surrounding sites. This is of particular concern not only in greenfield development projects, but also urban redevelopment projects where there is a trap that “all infrastructure is in place and adequate.”

2.) Perception
Be prepared for the problem of perception. If storm water detention and drainage issues are experienced on an adjacent site(s) either during your site’s construction or in the not too distant future once your project is completed, it is easy for others to create a causal relationship in their minds. Do your due diligence in advance, be knowledgeable upfront about potential problems that may arise, and keep your designs well documented. Perception does not have to mean reality.

3.) Catastrophic events
In all site development projects, civil engineers are obligated to design storm water drainage and detention solutions that meet local municipal requirements and guidelines. However, as Mickey Sullivan pointed out in his Defeating Disaster blog series, there may be an upward trend in the frequency of non-average, unpredictable weather events that pose a fundamental problem for designers and engineers. Most local storm water ordinances tend to base design standards on predictions drawn from historical weather data and statistics. They don’t necessarily protect during catastrophic events.

Engineers are required to create designs to meet code regulations. In seeing the number of issues caused by more and more frequent flooding, can our design teams use newer technologies and design approaches that can help our clients be better prepared for these changing weather patterns, and thereby lessen the devastating impact resulting from increased incidents of natural disaster?

While none of these observations should be considered as legal advice, they are ideas to keep in mind when considering best practices for site design and development.