By Jesse Wood
Located in the flood plain, the Boone Mall’s parking lot has been prone to flooding ever since it was built in the early ‘80s. This year, though, the flooding issues are worse, likely because of failed culverts behind Precision Printing.
In April, these rusty culverts in Boone Creek collapsed and a sinkhole formed in the company’s parking lot. This occurred after nearly four inches of rain fell across several days.
Three different property owners own the stretch of creek where the culverts collapsed. For a few months, the owners failed to reach consensus on a cost-sharing agreement and lawyers got involved. This led the Town of Boone’s Planning and Inspections Department to contact the property owners and alert them that $100 per day fines for violating the town’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) would go into effect in late August if the failed sections of culvert weren’t repaired. Repairs have since begun.
The parking lot of Precision Printing has collapsed twice in five years after heavy rains. In May, at least one of the property owners hired Laurence F. Lindsey, P.E. of L Squared Engineering, PLLC, to perform an assessment of the failed stormwater system and his recommendation mirrored an assessment performed in 2012 when Precision Printing’s parking lot collapsed the first time.
After listing recommended repairs in the recent assessment, Lindsey concluded, “It is important to note that the repairs recommended above will not in any way enhance water runoff through the pipe significantly and it should not be anticipated that this will reduce current flooding conditions in this area.”
The town’s stormwater management code is reflective of the state’s ordinances, and the law requires, at a minimum, to replace what already exists. For instance, in May, town staff met with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which advised that the “repair would fall under maintenance and no permit is needed as long as the pipe is replaced with the same size, length and location,” according to the town’s notice of violation.
Under current code, these stormwater failures are the responsibility of the property owners. To engineer this section with bigger culverts would require more planning, a new flood study, federal permits for the property and costlier infrastructure. All of which would increase costs significantly with no guarantee that the problem would be solved. This area is inherently flood prone.
P.J. Ollis, owner of Precision Printing, has operated out of the current location since the early ‘90s. Over the years, he has observed the flooding problems worsen. While he doesn’t own the property, he remains in constant contact with town officials about resolving this problem.
“The flood problem has always been since Kraut Creek has come because the Boone Mall was built in a swamp. From there what really made it worse to begin with was when the town allowed the state to build the convocation center,” Ollis said.
Boone Creek, also known as Kraut Creek because of the old sauerkraut factory in the Agriculture Conference Center, begins in downtown and runs through Durham Park on the App State campus. There, the water enters a giant culvert that you could drive a car through and runs underneath the Holmes Convocation Center.
“Then it gets to the culvert below Hardees. That is a regular culvert and can’t handle the pressure that comes from the plateau. Stand at the parking lot of the Convocation Center and look up. All that water from those mountains comes and drains through town and comes down Kraut Creek,” Ollis said.
During the storm when tornadoes struck Ashe, Burke, Caldwell and Wilkes counties about a week or so ago, rain pummeled Boone. Buildings on App State and the highway (Blowing Rock Road/U.S. 321) near the Holmes Convocation Center flooded (see video below). Across town, people were tubing in the Boone Mall because there was so much water.
Over the years, it’s become a common site to see unattended cars in the Boone Mall become inundated with water. Images of a flooded Boone Mall parking lot in 2013 went viral. The flood in 2013 totaled cars and businesses on Boone Docks Road and caused sinkholes at the old Frogurt location (now Hungry Howies) and Precision Printing. Last year, a young woman was rescued after arriving to her car in knee-deep water with a strong current. This was in a parking lot adjacent to the mall.
“Without addressing the flood problem, it will never change. That’s the truth. They know the truth. The town knows they need to address it and they haven’t addressed it,” said Ollis.
These floods go back further than recent years. Boone Mayor Rennie Brantz has lived in Boone since 1973. He recalled in the ’80s, around the time the Boone Mall opened, his wife’s car became submerged in a flood. She had to be rescued – much like the young woman last year.
“It’s been a problem for decades,” Brantz said.
After the 2013 flood, town officials started discussing the potential formation of a Stormwater Management Task Force. Stormwater issues were a topic at forums during that election season and candidates called for a task force or authority to spearhead resolving the flooding problems. Soon afterwards, the Boone Town Council hired McGill Associates to draft a report on stormwater and flooding issues and the council approved the formation of a stormwater management task force.
— Montana Eck (@moaleck) October 9, 2017
The generic report was issued but the task force was never formed. Mayor Brantz said that a Water Use Committee was formed, perhaps with addressing these issues in mind, but quickly the town’s water intake project took precedence as the committee’s primary topic of discussion. Brantz noted that the WUC dissolved recently with the decade-long water intake project set to be complete next summer.
“It may be that another kind of committee, a stormwater utility committee, may be needed to explore this issue,” Brantz said. “This is obviously something that is not going to go away. We need to do more careful examination of what the problem is and what we can do about it.”
Brantz continued, “It’s a really serious problem. We ought to try to help folks out. I do think it’s the community’s role to try to help homeowners and business people when they run into problems like this. It’s not entirely their fault that piping failed and runoff is increasing because of development upstream. I’d like to see the town help out and find a solution to this, but it won’t be easy and it won’t be inexpensive.”
Town Manager John Ward said the “true culprit” of the flooding is the culverting of Boone Creek back in the day to increase developable land. In addition to securing green space and demonstrating engineered wetlands like near the greenway, Ward said that another solution that the Town of Boone is doing to help control these flooding issues is working with developers to daylight creeks within new developments and re-developments.
The Standard of Boone, the mega student housing complex in between Faculty Street and Blowing Rock Road, includes a daylighted Boone Creek running through the property. The creek was previously in a culvert when the Scottish Inn and Red Carpet Inn existed in that vicinity.
It was here that 7-year-old Bryson Cox died after being swept away into a culvert near a parking lot at the Red Carpet Inn. Boone Creek rose so high, flooding into the parking lot on Aug. 13, 2010. The young boy stepped underneath a three-foot railing at the edge of the parking lot. The way the parking lot flooded, it looked as if the boy was stepping into shallow water and not the overflowing creek. Tragically, Bryson’s body turned up hundreds of yards down stream, underneath the N.C. 105 intersection.
Something similar happened around the same location in 1993 to an App State college student, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. Fortunately, the young man, who was riding a bike in a parking lot when the incident happened, ended up just bruised and battered after being swept through the culvert and emerging alive on the other side of N.C. 105.
With the current daylighting of the creek at The Standard development this likely couldn’t happen again at that same location. This area, where the creek was daylighted recently, also didn’t flood a week or so ago during the previous storm like in previous times.
“We had flooding near Hardees and the water was diverted and went down Blowing Rock Road and Faculty Street. The water that was open in the creek behind The Standard was able to fluctuate. It went up and down as it was designed to do,” Ward said. “The water from Faculty Street went into inlets and dumped on top of that floodwater that was already behind the Standard and it was able to accommodate all of that.”
Ward said that some of the grandfathered-in development seen along Boone Creek wouldn’t be allowed in today’s regulatory environment. The creek behind Precision Printing building, for example, can’t be daylighted today. Because the building and parking lot are built so close to the creek – the rear of each are practically built on top of it – there isn’t enough room to slope the banks of a daylighted creek and retain the building and parking lot.
“It’s really the older developments with the smaller-size piping [causing issues]. As property is being redeveloped and required engineering is being done, it’s being upsized, so it can accommodate that water,” Ward said. “Every community deals with existing infrastructure and just as bad as old water and sewer lines are, so are old culvert pipes.”
Like Ward and Brantz, Councilman Quint David said there needs to be more “public dialogue” of this issue, especially since the Town of Boone will likely be mandated by federal or state regulators to address this issue once the town’s population hits 20,000. Currently, the population exceeds 19,000.
Aside from sitting on the Boone Town Council, David is a technician at IONCON Engineering. A year shy from being able to sit for the test to become a licensed engineer, David has obviously thought quite a bit about this issue.
David says the Town of Boone has three options:
- Do nothing and force the private landowners to fix things to their grandfathered state forever while flooding continues
- Create a proper plan and require those updates next time culverts collapse or buildings change to eventually fix the flooding
- Swoop in and bailout the private landowners who have owned property in a known floodplain for many years which both fixes the flooding fastest and gets us a nice non-vehicle transportation lane and green buffer across town
Though the latter is the most expensive, that’s the option that David prefers.
“I want to go for the latter and create an ‘eco-district’ of revitalization in that area. It can’t happen with things in the current grandfathered-culvert-collapsing state though, and I don’t want to spend bajillions of town tax dollars on it if the only persons who benefit are the land owners who have parking lots and buildings in a flood plain where it would be illegal to build them today,” David wrote in an email. “If tax dollars are spent, it needs to benefit the whole town.”
David also realizes this option won’t happen without the cooperation of private landowners. Currently, the creek goes under Holmes Convocation Center, Hardees, Hungry Howie’s, Wendy’s, etc. Some of the most valuable land in the High Country is along Blowing Rock Boulevard, which runs parallel to the creek. As David said, the folks wouldn’t be amused if their valuable property was turned into a public greenway to solve the flooding problems.
“It is a delicate situation to balance public safety, community improvement and private responsibility,” David said.
When McGill associates drafted the stormwater management report in 2013, a stormwater utility fee was listed under “key considerations.” This fee would be similar to a garbage, water and sewer fees that the town collects. All the stormwater funds from individual property owners and/or residents would be pooled together to fund future stormwater management projects.
Speaking with Ward and Brantz, a stormwater utility seems to be where officials are pointing. This is likely to cause some backlash as it will be seen as another tax on residents and businesses in Boone. The fund for the utility will also take time to build up an amount that can make an impact. Studies and public hearings will have to occur before any implementation of a utility. As Ward said, it won’t happen overnight.
But whatever direction the town turns, this discussion is going to return to the forefront, officials say. Ward, who arrived by the time the topic receded into an afterthought by late summer of 2014, said he’s going to research where the discussion of a stormwater utility ended.
“I anticipate that with the additional issues being caused by flooding, we will discuss this at our annual retreat and restart the discussion about how to address these issues,” Ward said.