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Johnson City’s flooding problems unite state, local officials

Gary B. Gray • Aug 29, 2013 at 11:43 AM

The General Assembly was not in session Wednesday, but serious plans of action were drawn following an hourlong meeting at which legislators quizzed state and local officials about where money could be found, how red tape could be eliminated and what information was available to help quicken needed flooding fixes in Johnson City.

“We can draft a bill this summer,” state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, told the Johnson City Press after the meeting while pressing a cell phone to his ear to check on state law and confirm facts.

He held a small card in his free hand on which a short list of stormwater-related issues had been jotted down. One item referred to legislation he plans to introduce in light of a revelation that came about Wednesday. It turns out state-owned property must meet certain quality standards. But these properties, including East Tennessee State University, or publicly owned empty lots, are not presently required to meet tougher flood detention regulations within the city’s corporate limits.

“We’re not accusing anyone, we’re just saying they should acquiesce,” he said.

Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, who initiated the meeting at Memorial Park Community Center, and Rep. Micah Van Huss R-Jonesborough, met with an unexpectedly large number of community members in the center’s dining room. The finding that future legislation may help the city’s downtown flooding problems is an example of why the meeting was put together.

“The genesis of this meeting came out of a conversation with City Commissioner Jenny Brock,” Hill said. “Are we going to be able to bring out a big check and say, ‘here, everything’s fixed?’ No. But it’s important to me that Johnson City was on the front end of this conversation. The enormity of it is much greater than downtown. I’ve heard some disturbing comments that nothing is being done. That’s not true.”

What he was able to do was bring in a handful of regional representatives from both the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to answer questions.

As a precursor, legislators and state officials watched and listened as Johnson City’s Storm Water Manager Andy Best brought everyone up to speed on the city’s plight, including about 80 residents who showed up, many with color photos of their properties surrounded by rushing water.

“We’ve invested $6 million so far,” he said. “We looked at six or seven different scenarios, and in 2008 an overall plan for downtown was presented. The City Commission liked the idea but wanted to refine it. A course of action was approved that has five components and costs an estimated $30 million.”

Crowe asked about impediments and restrictions that slow down funding and project approval and asked if there were any “simple fixes” regarding rules and regulations at the federal level with which state legislators might be able to help.

“One thing that would be helpful is to quicken the response time on projects in which we are using federal money,” said City Manager Pete Peterson. “Federal allocations flow down through TDOT, and that tends to add some time, which can cause some frustration. There’s 95 counties and more than 300 municipalities, so a lot has to pass across their desks.”

Hill asked TDOT’S Region 1 Director Amanda Snowden about the hold up.

“We have to follow certain processes,” she said.

“When you receive the money, what hoops do you have to jump through?” Crowe asked.

“It depends on what phase you’re in — design, right of way — we have to sign off on each phase,” she said.

Peterson said he was concerned the state may be left out on a limb if federal money dries up after a municipality has begun a project.

“We’re doing about as much as we can financially do,” he said. “When you look at the rains we’ve had this summer — high intensity, short duration — the high volumes of water just won’t move. We’re trying to deal with water quantity. Most of the federal government’s concern is with water quality. What we really need is some cash. So if there’s anything you can do, it would help. The $30 million number does nothing to address the problems beyond downtown.”

There was a bit of good news Wednesday. Mark Braswell, TDEC’s Johnson City regional director for external affairs, announced that a permit to proceed had been issued on an $800,000 project at the intersection of Main and Broadway streets to install a larger culvert.

Meanwhile, legislators dug a little further into how the permitting process works.

“A lot of federal regulations are passed down to the state,” said Tina Robinson, TDEC’s division of water pollution control assistant manager. “For example, if you open up Brush Creek, the Corps of Engineers is the lead on that. If large disturbances won’t be caused in stream, it’s usually a pretty quick turnaround on permits. But if you reroute a creek, that would take several permits and a little longer.”

Residents on hand got a chance to meet face-to-face with all state and local officials, and the majority were glad they came.

“It made me understand that we have to go through TDOT and the environmental folks before they can ever do what they want to do,” said David Baldwin, who lives off East Brook Lane and has been affected by flooding. “I do feel like our legislators are legitimately concerned. If something doesn’t get done, we’re going to have a big mess on our hands.”

Donna Daniels lives off Montgomery Street. There is no creek nearby, but her home’s basement continually floods during rain events.

“This has helped put me in contact with someone who will possibly be able to help, and it’s helped me learn about how storm water dollars are spent.”

Afterward, Hill gave this conclusion before attendees broke up into small groups: “You have a commitment from your state representatives to help. Alright, money is No. 1. Red tape is next. Nobody’s running off. Nobody’s running out the door.”

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