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Resident pits building vs. street flooding

The Stovall Building can only add to the flooding along N Apopka Avenue, says a resident fighting the expansion.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002


INVERNESS -- It has been photographed and studied meticulously. It recently starred in a short film. And for a few hours 2 1/2 weeks ago, it even attracted the watchful eyes of sheriff's deputies and Inverness police officers.

Never has a local stormwater drainage pipe enjoyed so much celebrity. But then again, few pipes have been as important to a homeowner, a city and a county as the 18-inch-diameter line under John Godowski's front yard at 216 N Apopka Ave.

The pipe is key to the county's plans for a new office building north of the courthouse, and to Inverness' efforts to keep county officials from migrating to Lecanto. But if the county sends more stormwater down that pipe, Godowski fears he will be flooded out of his own home and ministorage warehouse.

"It's already overloaded," Godowski said, poring over pictures he has taken of N Apopka Avenue swelling with water during recent storms. "If the street is already flooding and then (the county's) ponds start dumping in, it's going to add a half-inch of water and there goes my warehouse."

So far, Godowski's questions about the drainage system have stalled the construction of the so-called Stovall Building, the new home for the property appraiser and tax collector just north of the courthouse, for six months.

The retired Air Force colonel recently hired a lawyer, and he says the county -- read: the taxpayers -- could be on the hook if the office building causes his property to flood.

But county officials say their plans for the Stovall Building include three drainage retention areas that would not send any more water Godowski's way.

The DRAs would hold the water from a 25-year storm; that is, a storm of such severity that it occurs about once every quarter-century, project engineer Troy Burrell said. For any storms more severe than that, some of the water would end up flowing through the 18-inch pipe below Godowski's property, but not any more than the undeveloped Stovall site sends now, Burrell said.

"The flow that's going through that pipe is not being increased, as near as I can tell," Burrell said.

Proving that theory has been the challenge.

* * *

Several police cars and deputies' cruisers descended June 19 on Godowski's red, wooden home. Literally descended: Godowski and the Stovall property share the town's lowest point within 18 acres.

"They've been using my property as the town sump," he said.

An engineering truck lowered a small video camera on wheels into the stormwater grate by Godowski's home, and into the 18-inch pipe below. The pipe channels the rain water from Godowski's grate, as well as three other grates nearby, into Big Lake Henderson a fraction of a mile away.

As the camera slowly rolled toward the lake, it filled about 10 minutes of videotape with images of a pipe that is remarkably clear and strong, considering city officials estimate the pipe is 50 to 60 years old.

It was the dispute above ground that had turned murky. Godowski was incensed that the engineer came to videotape the pipe, unannounced, with law enforcement in tow.

"They never knocked on our door or gave us a call," Godowski said. "It was a total surprise attack. These were goon, gestapo tactics."

City and county officials, however, said the tactics were necessary. City Manager Frank DiGiovanni, who sees the Stovall Building as a piece of the government plaza that will keep county officials in Inverness, said Godowski has previously parked cars on the street to block engineers' access to the stormwater grates.

DiGiovanni figured Godowski would call law enforcement when he saw the engineers arrive, so why not have the officers already on hand?

"There was no threat of violence as far as I was concerned," DiGiovanni said. "I just didn't want him to make the phone calls (to 911) to get everyone responding."

Godowski complained to the governor's office that the engineer had trespassed. Although city officials say the pipe is a public utility, Godowski says the city has long since abandoned the pipe that is now part of his property.

It is unclear what role, if any, the governor's office may play in the unfolding dispute.

What is clear is the pipe itself. It has an unobstructed path to the lake, which Burrell says supports his calculations that the Stovall Building would not increase the flooding on any neighboring property.

Now it is time for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the agency known as Swiftmud that regulates stormwater systems, to review the stacks of paperwork and the short film to decide if Burrell is right.

* * *

County officials have focused on making sure the Stovall Building doesn't increase the flooding on neighbors' properties.

But N Apopka Avenue has a flooding problem now, Godowski said, and the solution is a wider pipe.

Easier said than done.

The pipe below Godowski's yard and ministorage warehouse cannot be widened because buildings are in the way, DiGiovanni said. Laying a larger pipe in the city right-of-way along N Apopka Avenue is also problematic, he said, because the warehouse encroaches some 14 feet into the easement.

And until Swiftmud speaks, DiGiovanni doesn't know whether a wider pipe is needed at all.

"Under normal rains, when the water collects (in N Apopka Avenue), it's gone within 10 to 15 minutes of when the rain stops," DiGiovanni said. "If it was any longer, I would know from a lot of people. It's a heavily traveled road and I don't get complaints about that."

But Godowski tries to appeal to common sense. His stormwater grate, and the 12-inch pipes from the other three grates, all feed into one 18-inch pipe to the lake. Is it any wonder, he asks, that the water backs up during a storm?

"It probably worked great in 1930," before much of downtown Inverness was covered with buildings, asphalt and other surfaces that don't soak up the rain, Godowski said. "But it's not so great in 2002."

Godowski has grown frustrated in recent months, saying city and county officials have ignored his concerns.

Not so, says Assistant County Administrator Ken Saunders.

"Any time there was a situation with Mr. Godowski, the county worked with him 100 percent to try to resolve it," Saunders said. "The county has answered all of his questions and the city has answered all of his questions."

The county recently submitted a revised drainage permit application to Swiftmud and hopes to get the green light within 30 days, Saunders said. From there, he said, it should take Dooley & Mack Constructors Inc. 183 days to build the two-story structure.

The construction price is $2.1-million, but Godowski warns the project could become more costly if the building floods his property, as he fears.

"They're indirectly condemning me," he said. "They're destroying my property for their use and not paying me for it. If they had any decency at all, they would buy it."

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhall@sptimes.com.

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