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Winter Springs weighs if stopping storm erosion is “public interest”

With the clock ticking on millions of dollars in federal aid, the Winter Springs City Commission sat down to listen to leaders from neighborhoods in the city who would see walls built to stop their homes from falling into Howell Creek. 

“I think the last thing we want to see is a house floating down the creek as a houseboat,” said resident Iris Mennens, whose home lies just beyond the eastern edge of the Creek’s banks. Her home was just a few hundred feet south of where the creek flowed over the top of Winter Springs Boulevard as Hurricane Ian roared through Central Florida, dumping torrents of rain in the dark early morning of Sept. 29. That water swept land away as it pulled soil from behind nearby homes into the creek and sent it downstream.

The big question on April 10: Whether the city paying to add concrete walls into the backyards of four houses along the creek constituted a “public interest” enough to justify the expense of the city helping to pay for the walls that are designed to prevent erosion during high water flow. A total of 14 homes would receive the “sheet pile” walls to fix erosion issues near multiple water bodies in the city.

The federal government would cover 75% of the cost through a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant  to help rebuild areas of Florida in the wake of Hurricane Ian. But 25% has to be paid by either the homeowners where the walls would be installed, the homeowners association the homes are a part of, the city or a combination of those entities. Often the city will split the bill 50-50 with the homeowners, but cities have paid for the entirety of the 25% in certain circumstances, said engineer David Hamstra, who is consulting with the city on its storm rebuild. 

Demonstrating that public interest was a theme among residents who spoke in favor of the city paying for all of the 25% portion of the cost. 

“The city doesn’t necessarily jump in and expend public dollars to support private ventures or private residents straight up…there has to be some sort of identifiable public interest involved,” City Attorney Anthony Garganese said.  

Deputy Mayor Rob Elliott said that he needs to be able to explain to residents a reason why the city would pay for homeowners’ portion of the bill. 

“Somebody who lives in Oak Forest or The Highlands comes up to me and says ‘How do these walls benefit me?’ I need to have that answer,” Elliott said. “I don’t have it right now.” 

Mennens summed up the feelings expressed by several homeowners affected by the rapid erosion of their yards into the creek, which failed to contain the floodwaters of Ian: “We are not in a position to foot a bill of $50,000.” 

The cost per homeowner, were each homeowner to pay the entire 25% matching cost themselves, would be from $50,807 to $118,669 depending on the wall being installed. 

Commissioner Victoria Colangelo argued that since the water flows between several cities and the county before reaching Lake Jesup that it’s not just the city’s problem and the county or state should help pay for it. 

“This isn’t a city issue, it’s a watershed issue, which is a Seminole County issue, which is a Florida issue,” Colangelo said. “That is the definition of a greater good.”

When Mayor Kevin McCann clarified to Colangelo that what she said only applies to navigable waterways in Florida, Colangelo, referring to the unnavigable Howell Creek, said “It’s absolutely navigable.” But under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of “waters of the United States” that includes waters that are tributaries to navigable waterways, which Howell Creek is, flowing to the navigable St. Johns River by way of Lake Jesup. 

Others in the audience called for “a multi-jurisdictional approach” to stormwater management that looks into the flow of stormwater before and after Winter Springs. McCann said that he appreciated Colangelo’s idea and that it should be looked into. 

Hamstra cautioned that the city needs to move quickly to determine who will be paying that final 25% portion of the anti-erosion walls, or it could lose out on all of the federal funding to help pay for the majority of the cost. 

“They’re going to want the assurance that this will be successfully implemented,” Hamstra said.

The Commission did not vote on whether to pay for residents’ portion of the cost, but will be discussing the NRCS funding at the upcoming April 24 City Commission meeting. 

City moves forward on stormwater projects 

During the meeting Hamstra listed off a slew of projects the city had begun or completed. That includes flood-proofing 12 sewer lift stations to prevent homes being flooded with sewage. Sewage backed up into homes within the city when sewer lift stations lost power during Ian. It also includes upgrades to culverts for Gee Creek at Shore Road and Alton Road to help prevent flooding in the future. Alton Road is the last road crossing by the creek controlled by the city before it passes under S.R. 434 and into Lake Jesup. 

The city is also working with residents on finding funding to help pay for raising up 12 houses and demolishing three houses as part of a hazard mitigation grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The cost to raise the houses will be nearly $3 million, Hamstra said. 

The city is currently seeking $9 million in federal funding to help pay for the costs to the city for repairs and upgrades.

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