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Southwest homeowner battles city over sinkhole

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A Maplewood resident says the city should pay to fix a leaking stormwater pipe that's eroding his front yard


CONNECTION PHOTO: KELSEY O'HALLORAN - Maplewood resident Nick Preiser is at odds with the city after a leaking stormwater pipe caused a sinkhole in his front yard.The hole in Nick Preiser’s front yard started out small — an opening just 10 inches wide that he discovered last fall while mowing the lawn.

It has since grown to consume several feet of his yard, along with his peace of mind.

“The (city) basically tells me it’s my responsibility,” he says of the sinkhole at his home in the 5800 block of Southwest Texas Street. The problem was caused by erosion from a broken or shifted stormwater pipe that runs through his yard and across several neighbors’ properties.

When Preiser first discovered the hole in November, the small opening led to a hole that was deep enough to swallow the handle of a five-foot shovel and was several feet wider than it appeared.

“I didn’t know what it was, so I just called the water bureau,” says Preiser, who moved from Hayhurst with his wife, Gabrielle, in September.

Two Portland Water Bureau representatives examined his property and determined that the leaking pipe was the cause of the erosion.

The pipe was concrete, about 70 years old and, essentially, Preiser’s problem as the property owner. While the pipe may carry stormwater from one city street to another, it was installed by a private developer in 1954, according to a Multnomah County permit.

CONNECTION PHOTO: KELSEY O'HALLORAN - The sinkhole in Nick Preiser's front yard started out small, but in just a few months has grown to more than seven feet wide and seven feet deep.'Not going down quietly'

As Preiser toyed with the idea of fixing the pipe, he called a contractor and was told the repair would cost $7,000. But he also received his city utility bill in the mail and realized that about 30 percent of his water and sewer payments go toward on-site and off-site stormwater fees.

According to the billing details, off-site charges pay for “repairs, maintenance and renewal of facilities that manage stormwater runoff from city streets.” On-site charges, the bill states, pay for “facilities that manage stormwater runoff from private property.”

“Why am I paying this water bill if it’s not even going to my neighborhood?” he wondered.

The pipe appears to drain water from the 5800 block of Southwest Nevada Street, out the corner of Preiser’s lot and eventually into a system that runs to an easement north of Southwest Vermont Street, to keep streets from flooding. Preiser says he’s confirmed that none of the water in the pipe comes from his property.

In December, he wrote a letter to Portland’s Office of the City Attorney, which was transferred to the city’s Office of Risk Management and Finance.

While he waited for a reply, the gap grew; Preiser estimates that inside, the hole is now more than seven feet wide and seven feet deep.

He received his written reply from the city on March 20. The letter reads: “It is the City’s position that the stormwater line running through your property, which appears to be the cause of the sinkhole, is not a City of Portland facility.”

The letter goes on to say: “The stormwater that enters the pipes is not ‘the City’s stormwater.’ The City does manage stormwater in the right-of-way, but that is primarily to aid traffic flow on the streets.”

The statements left Preiser confused. If the stormwater is “not the City’s,” he wonders, “then whose is it?”

“If this pipe didn’t exist, the street up there would be impassible,” he adds. “How does the city justify charging people for services on infrastructure that it never intends to service?”

His neighbor, David Glidden, dealt with his own problem along the pipeline 15 years ago. A portion of Glidden’s front yard collapsed due to leakage from the pipe.

“I thought the city should pay for it,” Glidden says. “We made a fuss at first, too, but it didn’t seem to do much good.”

Later on, after he fixed that problem, the pipe caused water to leak in Glidden’s backyard, so he and his family crafted a water feature to make the most of the issue.

“You can’t fight water,” Glidden says. “You have to work with it.”

While Preiser concedes that he’ll likely end up fixing the problem himself, he worries that by touching the pipe, he could be held liable for future breaks on his neighbors’ properties. He says he may even bill the city for the cost of his repairs.

“I’m not going to go down quietly,” he says.

CONNECTION PHOTO: KELSEY O'HALLORAN - Nick Preiser measures a second sinkhole that's forming in his front yard.Buyer beware

According to Linc Mann, public information officer for the city’s Department of Environmental Services, the stormwater charges applied to Portland water bills aren’t meant to fund repair projects on private property.

“We don’t take care of assets — we don’t have assets — on private property,” Mann says. “We collect that fee to pay for our entire stormwater management system citywide.”

That system, he says, includes miles of storm pipes, ponds and green streets, which use plants and sustainable methods to manage stormwater runoff.

While Preiser’s pipe may be part of the city’s stormwater solution, Mann says it’s up to the property owner to deal with stormwater systems on private property.

Craig Johnston, a professor who specializes in environmental law at Lewis & Clark Law School, compares Preiser’s predicament to that of a landowner who discovers a leaking underground storage tank beneath his or her property. Removing such a tank and cleaning up polluted areas can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

“Whether you knew about it or not, it’s still your problem,” Johnston says. And while the pipe may help keep city streets free of stormwater, he adds, “The city gets benefits from a lot of things on private property, but that doesn’t mean they’re responsible for it.”

Johnston surmises that if Preiser were to hire a contractor to fix the break, he wouldn’t necessarily be liable for future breaks on other homeowners’ property.

“Assuming it’s a private system, it seems quite unlikely that merely by fixing it, the responsibility would land on him,” he says, with a caveat: “If his repair work on his own property causes a rupture somewhere else, then it seems to me he might have some responsibility for it.”

Jen Clodius, a senior management analyst for the city’s Office of Management and Finance, was unable to say who might be responsible for a hypothetical future break.

For Preiser, the thought of being held liable for future pipe breaks is more worrisome than his disagreement with the city, and it’s one of the main reasons he’s held off repairing the pipe so far. He’s already discovered another small sinkhole in his yard and is sure that more are on the way for the aging system that runs through several of his neighbors’ yards.

“That’s my biggest concern,” he says. “If the city would take responsibility after I fix it, I wouldn’t have so much heartburn over this.”

Contact Kelsey O’Halloran at 503-636-1281 x101 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Stormwater solutions for challenging sites

Portland-based sustainability consultant Maria Cahill knows personally that stormwater brings a special challenge for Southwest homeowners.

“I have a special relationship with the Southwest because I used to live there and I had my own challenging site,” Cahill says.

Steep slopes, high groundwater tables and clay soils common to Southwest can make it difficult or even dangerous for water to enter the soil.

Cahill, who started Green Girl Land Development Solutions in 2008, is running a series of workshops this spring to help Southwest residents manage challenging sites.

Usually, these solutions involve both “green infrastructure” — such as plant and soil implementations — and “gray infrastructure” such as pipes.

Cahill hasn’t examined homeowner Nick Preiser’s stormwater-induced sinkhole, but she surmises that Preiser should first fix the leak in his pipe and then set about preventing or reducing future leaks.

“That’s a shared pipe,” Cahill says, since it runs through several properties. “If the neighbors up and down that shared pipe wanted to reduce the amount of runoff going into that pipe, there are probably things they could do to intercept and reduce the amount of rainfall that becomes runoff.”

Depending on where the pipe is located and how water enters it, these solutions could include creating porous walkways with gravel or bark chips instead of paved paths on private property near the area where stormwater enters the pipe, or removing pavement on private property to replace it with a garden that could more easily absorb excess water.

“We reduce runoff by intercepting the rainfall and evaporating it back up,” she says.

Cahill’s last stormwater workshop this season will be held May 3, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. During the free workshop, participants will receive hands-on training on installing stormwater projects at a residential demonstration site. For more information or to sign up for a workshop, visit swni.org/stormwater.