NEW PORT RICHEY — A month after Tropical Storm Debby, residents of Trinity's Thousand Oaks neighborhood are still struggling with high water.
The neighborhood has long been plagued with flooding problems, with residents saying it stems from the developer's original decision to build the homes up to a foot below the water table.
"Why was this allowed to happen?" said Cortney King, a Pinellas County teacher who lives on Wavyedge Court. "Why would they allow the actual building of these houses to begin with?"
King was one of about 50 residents from Thousand Oaks and nearby Trinity Oaks who crowded Tuesday's County Commission meeting. He showed pictures of flooded streets that trapped residents in their homes for days. Water crept up to the edges of some homes and some families had up to 4 inches of water in their home.
"There are many people here who cannot speak because they are so emotional about it," said King's wife, Kimberly King.
Ron Levi, president of Trinity Oaks Property Owners Association, added: "If we get any significant rainfall, over an inch or two, we're just going to flood out again. Something has to be done."
The residents found a panel of sympathetic commissioners.
"I know we'd like to be able to let you go back to your houses today with an equitable solution to the problem," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "Legally, I don't believe we can do that today."
Hildebrand noted that Debby was a historic storm that closed major arteries such as Ridge Road and State Road 54. "God dumped an awful lot of rainwater in west Pasco County," she said.
The county has spent $2 million in the neighborhood in the last eight years, including a 2005 study that identified long-term stormwater solutions. The study noted that wetlands in the area are roughly a foot higher than nearby ponds, meaning the ponds cannot drain into the wetlands. The plan called for dredging the wetlands to allow the ponds to drain properly.
County staffers were ready to go forward on that project. But the Southwest Florida Water Management District rejected the request last year, saying the wetlands were not previously damaged by development. That means the county would need hard-to-obtain approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"We've spent a lot of money trying to fix the problem," said County Administrator John Gallagher. "But we have other regulatory agencies that are in the way. We need to figure out how to get around those regulatory agencies."
Public works director Mike Garrett said the county disagrees with the water management district's decision and has evidence that the wetland had been previously dredged. If so, the county would simply be performing ongoing maintenance. With a new executive director at the agency commonly known as Swiftmud, Garrett said he is hopeful the agency will change its mind.
County Commissioner Jack Mariano said he wants to quickly pressure Swiftmud to allow the project. If the agency denies the request, he floated the idea of moving forward anyway, and letting them "go after us later on."
County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder warned against such a move, saying the commission could face civil and criminal liability.
If that project continues to stall, King and other residents asked officials to explore other options such as creating retention ponds east of Little Road to collect water there before it flows into Thousand Oaks.
Gallagher suggested that residents assemble a small group of people to work with his staff on potential solutions.
"I think we'll be able to come up with something that works," he said. "Our goal is to keep (the water) out of your houses."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.