Melissa Rooney Blogging

Melissa Rooney Blogging

"There is more to life than increasing its speed." – Mahatma Gandhi

City of Durham Avoids Municipal Stormwater Responsibilities while Inhibiting Affordable and Sustainable Private Solutions

I have written this article to demonstrate the City of Durham’s irrational and uncooperative approach to drainage issues like the one I am dealing with at 613 Canal Street – note that this is a separate drainage issue from the flooding occurring at neighboring 611 Canal Street (the subject of my last Stormwater blog post).

When we bought the property at 613 Canal Street, the unmaintained drainage ditch running along the edge of the property ended at the city’s pipe in a mess (see photos immediately below). Early on, I called the city to inform them of the exposed pipe and the sinkhole forming around it, to make them aware of the liability and see if they could do anything about it. They said it was a private property issue.

613 Canal Street Drainage Ditch, Before 2613 Canal Street Drainage Ditch, Before 1


When we prepared the site for construction, we installed a French drain along the back of the property (to reduce the water flowing through the ditch) and installed a grate over the city’s pipe for aesthetics as well as safety. In January, 2017, before we were able to plant any vegetation in the water drainage area, the city flushed an upstream hydrant (on Dowd Street) for 8 days, 24 hours straight. At first I didn’t know where the rapidly flowing water was coming from. For three days, I called the city to determine the cause and see if it could be stopped, at least until we could install some kind of sedimentation barrier to prevent further erosion and loss of soil. It was only when I contacted Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel that the flushing stopped. In the end, the city gave me a weak explanation for the incessant flushing (it was necessary for the safety of everyone’s drinking water), an excuse as to why owners of properties (even those onto which city street stormwater runoff is directly piped) cannot be informed about immediately upstream hydrant flushing ahead of time (or at least when it is initiated), and a warning that I *may* receive a violation notice if I do not provide calculations by a certified engineer guaranteeing the effectiveness of the ‘altered’ drainage system. In lieu of such calculations, I was informed, I would have to remove the alterations I made to the drainage ditch and return it to its original, unmaintained state or face violation fees.

After the house was completed, I installed 2 tons of river rocks and perennial, flowering, water-and drought-resistant vegetation to stabilize the ditch. Since then, the drainage ditch is working as intended, but in a beautified and maintained state after decades of neglect. Here is a recent photo:

613 Canal Street Drainage Ditch, After

Apparently due to an unrelated complaint (that of the flooding at neighboring 611 Canal Street, more info HERE), we received the following letter from the city in September 2017 (eight months after the hydrant flushing incident, with the house now on the market):

Several engineers informed us that the scope of the work is beyond their expertise and recommended civil engineers, who were going to cost us far more than the cost of returning things to their original, unmaintained state.

At the suggestion of a neighboring Gray-Street developer, we submitted to the city a video we took during a rain event, demonstrating that the drainage ditch and grate function as intended (indeed, better than before), with no discharge across the lawn or sidewalk (see email correspondence at the base of this email). This video I took yesterday, during 3 days of intermittent rain, shows that the system is still functioning perfectly one month later: Properly Functioning Drainage System (with Grate) at 613 Canal Street on 1 Mar 2018.

We hoped that this would satisfy the city and bring closure to the situation. Instead, the city rejected the video and added another caveat (see email correspondence below). We are now going to have to replace the grate even if we provide the city with the civil engineering analysis it requires, making returning the ditch to its original unmaintained state our only financially (and psychologically) reasonable option.

As things now stand, in order to appease the city, we are going to remove a properly functioning grate (that cost us $800 to install and will cost an additional $500 to remove), destroying the surrounding established vegetation (which is stabilizing the drainage area), thereby exposing the city’s pipe, such that 1) leaves and sediment are not removed and can once again clog the pipe and pollute the waterway, and 2) the hole around the city’s pipe, once again, becomes a liability and an eyesore.

It is incredibly disheartening to me that the fact that our drainage system is now well-maintained, beautified, safe and working properly does not appear to matter to the city. Instead, the city seems determined to ‘win this battle’, or at least to make sure we think twice before we complain about anything stormwater-related again.

Regardless of my personal situation, I hope our elected officials will question the means by which the city is dealing with its drainage issues and stormwater infrastructure, as the current modus operandi is apparently to discourage affordable, common-sense (and usually more sustainable) solutions in support of expensive engineered solutions that require city permits (costing even more $).

Like so many other Durham residents investing in our neighborhoods, my husband and I are sustainably-minded single-home builders/renovators (one project at a time), not deep-pocketed developers. Durham must find a way to differentiate between the two and facilitate the former as well as the latter, if we truly want to prevent the displacement of modest housing with high-end gentrification. Facilitating the stormwater control efforts of private property owners (and assisting with the costs of fulfilling the city’s requirements), will improve our stormwater challenges in real time, as well as make our infrastructure more sustainable, aesthetically pleasing, and easy to maintain.


———- Forwarded message ———-

On Mar 8, 2018, 2:18 PM -0500, Halstead, Eric <>, wrote:

Mr. Rooney,

Restoring the area to the way it was before you performed your work will meet the City’s demands.  Please contact the City to verify the restoration to close this issue.

Below is a snippets that shows the original condition of the structure and ditch.  Feel free to contact me should you have additional questions.  Thank you.

Photo of drainage pipe and ditch before grate installed


Eric Halstead, PE

Engineering Inspections Group Supervisor

Department of Public Works, City of Durham

101 City Hall Plaza

Durham, NC 27701

P 919-560-4326, ext 30259

F 919-560-4316


From: Mike Rooney
Sent: Tuesday, March 06, 2018 8:53 AM
To: Halstead, Eric
Subject: Re: 613 Canal Street

Thank you, Mr. Halstead, for your response. I am disappointed that the city is not satisfied with our video demonstrating that the drainage ditch, in its current configuration, continues to perform unobstructed and as originally intended.

In light of your new requirement that the grate will have to be reconfigured and replaced regardless of the findings of an engineer, it appears that our best course of action is to remove the grate and its support in order to return the system to its configuration when we bought the property.

Before we pay for this to be done, I am writing to confirm that this action will satisfy the city’s demands and bring closure to this case.

Thank you, again, for your assistance.


Mike Rooney

From: Halstead, Eric
Date: Feb 20, 2018, 10:55 AM -0500
To: Mike Rooney, Tuttle, Sean
Cc: Weist, Justin
Subject: RE: 613 Canal Street

Good Morning Mr. Rooney,

I am sorry to hear of your troubles in securing the services of a licensed professional engineer. If you are unable to provide the required engineering analysis and design to support your drainage efforts then you will need to remove what has been placed without prior authorization and restore the area to the condition it was in.

Also, as a reminder, should your drainage efforts be supported by engineering analysis and design you will need to reconstruct the structure you are tying into as well as swap out the “grate” to meet City Standards. For your reference I am including a snippet of an acceptable structure below and at the following web address.

City requirements for new grate

Eric Halstead, PE

Engineering Inspections Group Supervisor

Department of Public Works, City of Durham

101 City Hall Plaza

Durham, NC 27701


From: Mike Rooney
Sent: Monday, February 19, 2018 12:21 PM
To: Halstead, Eric; Tuttle, Sean
Subject: 613 Canal Street

Dear Mr. Halstead and Mr. Tuttle,

Thank you again for meeting with me last month. Since we met I have contacted several engineers who have indicated that the study you requested is beyond their scope, and we have been referred to a civil engineering firm. However, one of the engineers we spoke with suggested that we submit to the city a video of the system during a heavy rain, demonstrating that it can handle the runoff directed along the ditch and into the grate at the bottom; he said that this has sufficed in past cases.

Sunday 04 Feb my wife took the following video, which demonstrates that the current system can easily handle the runoff it channels during heavy rains, while providing safety and filtering out leaves and other debris that would otherwise clog the city’s downstream pipe.

I hope that this video will suffice as evidence that the storm ditch remains unobstructed and functions as originally intended and that you will permit us to keep the grate and its supporting wall to reduce unsightliness and, more importantly, liability for what otherwise would remain an open ditch and pipe.

I look forward to your response.

Mike Rooney

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