Liability at issue for wet city basements

VERGENNES — At the Aug. 23 Vergennes City Council meeting, Vergennes officials told two of the several Crosby Farms homeowners whose basements were flooded in April and May that nothing could be done until the insurance liability for the events could be worked out.
Homeowners Jeffrey and Carrie Tarte, who attended the meeting, and City Manager Mel Hawley told the council they have talked regularly about the incidents.
Jeffrey Tarte said at last Tuesday’s meeting that nine homes in the subdivision suffered flooded basements in April, including their own finished space, and about a half-dozen homes saw it happen again in May.
Hawley told aldermen city that workers went to look for blockages in the area’s stormwater drains, but found none. They then concluded the drainage system had failed during the spring’s record-setting rain, he said.
The Tartes acknowledged their basement had not flooded during their previous 18 years in the subdivision near the city’s southern gateway.
The question of liability is complex, Hawley said. The city becomes a stormwater permit holder once it accepts a subdivision, giving the city legal exposure.
But the questions are also whether the design of the system is adequate, meaning the engineering company’s insurance would have to step up, or whether construction might be at fault, meaning the contractor might be liable.
The city carries insurance through the Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ Property and Casualty Intermunicipal Fund Inc., known as PACIF. Hawley helped found VLCT’s insurance branch during his first tenure as city manager.
PACIF has said it will investigate the situation, but to Hawley’s frustration, it has yet to act.
“I do not like the delays that occurred in this process,” Hawley said, adding, “That’s not the way the VLCT casualty fund is supposed to act.”
On Tuesday, Hawley said he would contact PACIF on Wednesday morning. On Wednesday, he received an email in response in which PACIF claims representative Mike Ortega agreed he may have “dropped the ball,” and that although the claim was supposed to be adjusted by a third-party contractor, Ortega apologized and said now “the matter will go to the front burner.”
In response to the Tartes’ question to what aldermen were doing to “correct the deficiencies” in the stormwater system, Hawley responded that the city should not act until liability is determined, and the proper process is through the PACIF investigation.
“There are a lot of pieces to this,” he said. “The VLCT should do its work and determine liability.”
As well as the issues with drainage itself, Hawley said aerial photos indicated the drainage shed might be 80 acres, not just the 45 acres of the development. Alderman Joe Klopfenstein said the newly built nearby Christian school might have contributed to drainage problems. And Mayor Michael Daniels said the groundwater level might be higher because nearby homes previously using wells are now on municipal water.
“There may be some other factors,” Daniels said.
Hawley said he hoped liability and the proper corrective measures could be determined sooner, rather than later.
“This has not been fun for the Tartes … and we need to figure this thing out,” he said. “And the Tartes are not the only people affected.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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