Killearn Estates, the northeast neighborhood of 4,000 homes, and the City of Tallahassee are in a tug a war over who is responsible for maintaining a chain of lakes that covers approximately 200 acres.
It is a debate that is complicated, colored by a history of mistrust, and shows no signs of going away.
It is complicated in that rules and policies governing the maintenance of the lakes involves the EPA, the Florida DEP, and the City of Tallahassee. Mistrust is never far away from the debate due to the way Killearn Estates was annexed into the City in the mid 1980’s.
And finally, the battle seems to have staying power for several reasons. First, it is an election year and Killearn Estates is home to thousands of voters. Second, over 1,500 residents signed a petition urging action by the City. And third, Killearn Estates is one of the few neighborhoods that has the financial resources to higher lawyers and consultants to fight the City of Tallahassee.
Tallahassee Reports has spent hours talking to representatives of the Killearn Estates Homeowners Association (KHA), neighborhood residents, the City staff, and representatives from the state DEP.
Looking past the bickering and the bureaucratic legal arguments, the central issue is that the KHA believes the City is responsible for maintaining the chain of lakes and that action is now required.
This position is based on the simple fact that the City has had a permit from the State of Florida to move stormwater from City property into the chain of lakes for the last 20-25 years and the State of Florida has recently listed the water in these lakes as “impaired.”
With the rapid development of the northeast along the Thomasville corridor, the chain of lakes has been a vital part of the stormwater system maintained by the City of Tallahassee.
KHA has told Tallahassee Reports and the City has confirmed that there are approximately 40 pipes and drains that move stormwater from developments north of Killearn Estates into the lakes.
Also, independent research by Tallahassee Reports does indicate that stormwater resources do need routine maintenance.
Given these findings, why is the City reluctant to heed the call for help from the KHA?
Tallahassee Reports talked to John Buss, Manager of Water Resources Engineering for the City of Tallahassee, who has been at the center of the discussion for years. We asked Mr. Buss to describe the level of responsibility the City of Tallahassee has with regards to the lakes.
“We do not have a lakes management program. However, we do have an obligation to maintain and monitor water quality. We are doing some tests now to determine if we have quality problem caused by urban runoff and other man-made activities,” said Mr. Buss.
Mr. Buss said that the City provides a level of service that is consistent with the fees that are collected to support stormwater improvements.
What do these improvements include?
The KHA provided Tallahassee Reports with a list of priorities. Tallahassee Reports presented these priorities to Mr. Buss and to get his response.
The KHA would like the silt and sediment removed from around the entry points where stormwater flows into the lakes.
Mr. Buss said “the City has the responsibility to remove the material if the sediment is polluted with runoff pollutants. But currently the sediment is not polluted, just unsightly.”
The KHA would like the City to perform upstream maintenance of stormwater ponds so that the water that enters the lakes are properly treated.
Mr. Buss said “if runoff pollutants are being transferred to the Killearn lakes because of upstream issues, the City is responsible for addressing that problem.”
The KHA would like the City to develop a public education program to address issues with the lakes.
Mr. Buss said “the City has offered to help with public education. Such a program would provide information to residents about the actions they could take to improve the water quality of the lakes.”
Finally, the KHA would like the City to dredge certain sections of the lakes where sediment has caused the lakes to become shallow.
Mr. Buss said that since the sediment is not polluted this is not the responsibility of the City.
Mr. Buss was clear in pointing out that the City’s responsibilities revolve around a level of service associated with stormwater issues not maintaining the lake as an amenity. That responsibility falls to the homeowners association.
The KHA representatives clearly believe that actions and lack of action by City have affected the lake and therefore the City should accept responsibility.
For example, a big issue is the level of the lakes. The KHA claim that the flood mitigation implemented by the City in 1990’s decreased the lake levels by approximately 2 feet.
Mr. Buss flatly denies this and says this “is not the case and I have explained my reasoning for this conclusion to the KHA.”
The next important issue is water quality. The KHA correctly points out that the Florida DEP list the lakes as “impaired.” However, Mr. Buss states that an impaired designation does not mean that the stormwater passing through the lakes is causing the problem.
In fact, Mr. Buss said, preliminary testing by the City indicates the water leaving the lakes is more polluted than the water entering the lakes.
Mr. Buss believes that runoff from the large residential lots in Killearn and the golf course could be the cause of the pollution.
However, Mr. Buss said that if the final test results show that the stormwater is the source of lake pollution the City will take action.
Tallahassee Reports contacted Julie Espy, a Program Administrator for Florida DEP about this issue.
Ms. Espy said “ the City has asked for an extension for DEP’s determination of impaired and has proposed a process and put forth a large sum of money that will determine the sources of the nutrients.”
Ms. Espy confirmed that “if the monitoring process determines that stormwater is part of the problem, the City would be obligated to clean up the lakes to the degree that stormwater is a contributing factor.”
Brad Trotman, the executive director of the KHA, believes the City is responsible for all maintenance of the lakes, regardless of pollution. “It’s the City’s stormwater that has moved the silt and sediment into the lakes and presented maintenance challenges over the last 20 years. The City maintains other lakes and it is their responsibility to maintain these lakes.”