Gerry and Margie Richels have been fighting an uphill battle with Blaine City Hall for almost two years.
Their property used to be at a higher elevation than the land next to them. But since the city allowed a developer to raise the elevation 6 feet and build houses on it, water and silt washes down into the Richels' yard.
Richels, a retired engineer, had warned that such a thing might happen when he caught wind of the project, but the city promised him it wouldn't. His frequent complaints to City Hall since then have prompted numerous attempts to stop the erosion and drainage trouble, but he's still not satisfied -- especially since the city allowed the berm to be built right up to Richels' property line, despite a standard calling for a 3-foot setback.
City officials, for their part, are exasperated with Richels. One council member calls it the "project from hell."
Mayor Tom Ryan acknowledges that since the townhouses were built, "it's a 6-foot drop right onto his property. It's steep." But he indicated Richels is in good company. "Drainage problems in this city are pretty typical."
They're also a frequent source of conflict among neighbors.
"Property owners have the right to drain water from their property onto their neighbor's, as long as it doesn't unreasonably damage their neighbors'," said Adam A. Ripple, a lawyer at Rinke Noonan, a St. Cloud firm that specializes in these kinds of disputes. "That, as you can imagine, does nothing but breed litigation and arguments. There's usually not a clear-cut way to resolve issues if you have folks that don't want to work together toward a common solution."
At this point, the city and the Richelses seem far apart.
When Richels bought his property in 1998, his next-door neighbor was a farm. There's disagreement about which way the water used to flow -- the mayor says that the farmland drained onto Richels' property, but a hydrologist hired by Richels concluded the water used to drain in the other direction.
In 2006, when Merit Development Co. Inc. went before the planning commission for zoning approval to build on the site, Richels expressed his concerns about runoff. Commission meeting minutes show that the city's project coordinator, Tom Scott, said "that it will be looked at with the grading plan to be sure there will be no runoff water running into Mr. Richels property."
Minks Custom Homes Inc. later became the developer. When nearby houses were built and dirt was graded two years ago, the yards for two houses abutting Richels' land were graded to slope down to the property line. While city engineering standards recommend a 3-foot setback for retaining walls from property lines, city manager Clark Arneson said those rules are "standards, not ordinances or statutes."
One home's downspouts directed water down the slope. With silt accumulated in his yard, Richels contacted the city with his objections.
The city directed the builder to undertake a series of remedial efforts. A swaled berm that slanted at 45 degrees, ending at the property line. A new gutter. Redirected downspouts. A double row of rocks on the hillside.
The measures helped, but the runoff continued.
Richels dogged city staff and council members with e-mails and phone calls as the berm's sod sagged and failed to take hold. Contractors repeatedly entered his property to collect debris or add another layer of dirt and sod to the berm.
This year, when the city sought permission to enter his property to plant seed for native plants, which they said would solve the problem once and for all, Richels said no.
A city engineer said the work could only safely be done from the bottom of the steep slope, but Richels told the engineer to ask the person who approved the project how to maintain the berm from the owner's property.
"Like any organization, you're going to have situations where mistakes happen," David Clark, a city councilman, said. If a project "can't be brought into compliance reasonably, then some other accommodation is generally worked out."
But Ryan, the mayor, feels the city has done everything it can to try to fix the problem, short of tearing down a house or building "the foolishest-looking [retaining wall] you've ever seen."
"I don't think he wants that," he said.
But Richels does want that.
In July 2011, he proposed a solution based on his reading of city rules: A 3-foot setback, a 4-foot-high retaining wall and a swale leading to a city sewer nearby. The idea gained no traction.
"I've lost over 200 hours in this. I've lost sleep over this because I wake up at night wondering how to get this fixed," Richels said.