Scott Boutwell used to see eagles and hawks in the cypress and oak trees that used to stand on his property off Kings Estate Road and on an adjoining, undeveloped parcel off Hilltop Road.
The trees on the adjacent land came down when construction on Sawmill Landing began in the summer of 2017. His trees came down in Hurricane Irma and the nor’easters that followed, having lost their natural buffer.
While some of the birds have started coming back around, doing some reconnaissance on a newly-installed retention pond for something to eat, Boutwell said the wind that was never an issue before is now a constant.
A regional shop manager for a global infrastructure and maintenance firm, Boutwell says the real problem he’s having is the water.
Boutwell said he purchased his property in 2004, back when many of the surrounding roads were dirt. Water came and went for years, draining south toward Moultrie Creek, and never lingering more than a couple days, even after major weather events.
He said he made it “perfectly known” to commissioners ahead of the project’s approval in spring 2015 that as soon as dirt was placed along the ends of the lots, the water would no longer go to the south but to the east and west, onto adjoining properties.
Boutwell said water from Irma and the storms that followed came under his house, which is up on cinder blocks, and flooded his air conditioning unit, which is yet to be replaced. He’s got the waterlines to prove it.
“I’ve never had that issue,” he said. “I’ve been through plenty of hurricanes and rainfall here and I never had the water come up that high.”
He said during the hurricanes of 2004, plenty of water came on the property, but it never reached the house. Still, the flooding was concerning enough for Boutwell to take a look around the neighborhood.
At the nearby intersection of Cypress Road and St. Augustine Boulevard he said he found three 14-inch pipes, stacked one on top of the other, responsible for handling a significant chunk of the runoff from the area as it makes its way to Moultrie Creek.
“It’s like swizzle sticks in a drink,” Boutwell said. “Take four and try to suck through them, it’s pretty difficult. But one big straw, it’s pretty easy to drink your drink. It’s the same thing with discharge water.”
He said you can’t do with two 14-inch pipes what you could do with one 28-inch pipe, adding he’s been asking the county for a 36-inch pipe since that 2004 discovery.
Boutwell said he didn’t have nearly the amount of water from Hurricane Matthew that he did from the later storms, even though Matthew created more rainwater.
“So, you figure that one out,” he said. “We had more rainwater here with Matthew than we did with Irma, but the water flowed through like it always did when Matthew came and it didn’t with Irma.”
What changed? Boutwell nods his head over toward the Sawmill Landing project, which started after Matthew and before Irma and the subsequent storms.
Before, Boutwell said the water sloped downward from his property. Now, he said, the abutting property is graded down toward him, with a small swale in between. He said he’s working on getting some fill and fixing the grading on his property to adjust to the changes.
Boutwell said the paving over of what were once dirt roads resulted in more runoff trying to get through the same sized drainage pipes. He said adding more rooftops and concrete to the equation is only going to mean more water with no place to go.
He said the neighborhood is zoned Open Rural, meaning one house per acre. But Sawmill Landing’s Planned Unit Development calls for a maximum of 100 single-family residences on just under 50 acres of land straddling Hilltop Road, including about 20.83 acres of wetlands (of which 3.22 acres are to be impacted).
In written responses with input from multiple departments, St. Johns County told The Record on Friday that the Sawmill Landing project has a sufficient drainage and stormwater management plan.
“The approved engineering plans for the development include infrastructure to not only prevent runoff to adjacent properties, but to alleviate water collected from those adjacent properties,” the county said.
Additionally, the county said the stormwater management plan was engineered and designed using requirements set forth in the county’s Land Development Code as well as the standards of the St. Johns River Water Management District.
The county says it has “not found any evidence that Sawmill Landing is negatively impacting the drainage on adjacent properties” and that the PUD adheres to all county regulations.
But Boutwell is unconvinced and it seems he’s not alone.
“County staff has been in contact numerous times with Mr. Boutwell and the other neighbors concerning the Sawmill Landing Subdivision,” the county said. “While the Sawmill Landing development is not believed to be related to drainage concerns on adjacent properties, St. Johns County staff has proactively worked on residents’ behalf with the developer to address concerns. The County’s role, jurisdiction, and ability when addressing private property issues is limited by law, however, we strive to act in the best interested of our residents when possible as allowed by statute.”
The county said staff is currently conducting a countywide drainage assessment that takes into account all thoroughfares and developments, and will provide the commission with an overview and proposed drainage plan in the near future.
Additionally, commissioners on Tuesday will consider proceeding with an agreement to secure Community Development Block Grant monies from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for disaster recovery projects tying back to Matthew. The proposed plan shows a drainage improvement project for Cypress Road and St. Augustine Boulevard.
Boutwell said he was waiting to hear back on the upshot of a meeting he claimed took place on Monday between the county, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and St. Johns River Water Management District. The county said staff was not aware of any such meeting.
During a brief interview Tuesday on Boutwell’s property, a neighbor driving by circled around, stopped her car, hopped out and asked if it was the St. Johns Water Management District that Boutwell was talking to, adding she’d been waiting for responses from the district and other agencies “about all this water.” When informed it wasn’t any of the agencies she was looking for, she got back in her car and drove away.