Landowner negligent in discharge of stormwater over neighbor’s property

by Hannah Dankbar

A.D., L.L.C. v 2004 SC Partners L.L.C.
(Iowa Court of Appeals, November 26, 2014)

2004 SC Partners L.L.C. is the current owner of Morning Hills Apartments.  A.D., L.L.C. bought property adjoining Morning Hills Apartments in 2009 and the two parties have had many conflicts since then. Starting in 2009 A.D. began to receive notices from the city of Sioux City and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to solve a public nuisance relating to soil erosion and silting. The hillside between Partners and A.D. is highly erodible. A.D. filed an equity action in July 2011 petitioning to have Partners help solve this problem. A.D. sought money judgments for past damages and an order for Partners to abate the issue. Partners answered by saying this issue was already addressed in court and solved privately with A.D. saying they would solve the problem and that the damage was their fault. Partners filed a counter claim that A.D. had failed to comply with the settlement agreement and that they should stabilize the slope and to compensate Partners for the damage to their land from the prior suit.

In 2012 Partners filed a motion for summary motion, which A.D. resisted. A.D. said that the water damage is a result of Partners’ water drainage system that changed the natural flow of water and that they have failed to maintain the system. The district court cited the “general rule” that the dominant estate is entitled to drain surface water in a natural water course of the servient owner’s land, and if damage results the servient landowner is without remedy, unless there is a substantial increase in drainage that results in actual damage. Citing Oak Leaf Country Club v. Wilson, the court also observed, “A corollary of the rule is an overriding requirement that one must exercise ordinary care in the use of his property so as to not injure the rights of neighboring landowners.”

The court found the essential issue in this case to be whether Partners is discharging water in an unnatural manner, has changed the method of drainage in such a way that it has become liable for damages, or, stated another way, whether it is exercising ordinary care in the use of its property so as not to injure the rights of neighboring landowners.

It concluded there were questions of fact as to whether or not “Partners has violated a duty to use ordinary care in the maintenance of [its] property, and whether or not a private nuisance has been established.” The district court therefore denied the motion for summary judgment.

Both sides testified that they attempted to address the problem. A.D. built a retaining pond to accommodate the water and Partners asserted they would add piping, but were waiting for payment from the 2009 suit. A variety of engineers testified that the structure was not functioning to its’ maximum capacity. The court concluded A.D.’s petition had sufficient facts to plead an alternative claim of negligence. The court decided that Partners had a duty to be aware of dangerous property conditions (the degraded drainage system) and failed to fix the problem given a reasonable amount of time.

The trial court decided that A.D. suffered $92,800 in damages, but that it had purchased the property knowing there was a problem with the drainage system and had no plans to remedy the situation. The court decided that A.D. was 65%, and Partners 35%, at fault for the property damage. Under Iowa’s Comparative Fault Act Partners argued that A.D. therefore could not recover damages; however, the court found it could not conclude that something other than Partners’ failure to abate the drainage system was the only cause of damage to A.D.’s property. The court also ruled that the easement a dominant estate has on a servient estate cannot provide a defense to a negligence claim.

The court enjoined Partners from continuing to allow its drainage system to function without repair and order it to take whatever action is necessary to ensure that its drainage system is properly functioning at its own cost. The court ordered Partners to allow A.D.  access to Partners’ property, if required, to tie into a properly functioning drainage system, which will allow storm water to safely traverse A.D.’s property.

Activities of landowner, not intent, determine whether “land disturbing activity” has taken place

by Rachel Greifenkamp

Town of Raymond v. Mary Jane Vogt and Raymond R. Vogt

(Wisconsin Court of Appeals, January 22, 2014)

The Town of Raymond, WI has an ordinance that prohibits landowners from engaging in land-disturbing construction activities that cause runoff into state waters without first obtaining a permit. Raymond and Mary Jane Vogt testified that they removed weeds and thistles, moved land in order to vertically install a large steel plate five to eight feet from the neighbor’s property line, and filled a ten-by-twenty-foot area of the ditch with gravel and multiple truckloads of dirt to enhance a drainage ditch between their property and their neighbors property.  All of this work was performed without a permit. A trial court determined this to be “land-disturbing activity” within the meaning of the term found in the Town ordinance, The trial court ordered the Vogts to allow Town agents to inspect their property and develop a remedial plan, which the court then approved and ordered the plan to be carried out at the expense of the Vogts. In all, the trial court awarded the Town $16,676 for expenditures and $45,131.50 for daily forfeitures and costs, totally nearly $52,000 to be paid by the Vogts.  The Vogts appealed.

The Town ordinance defined “land disturbing activity” as “any man-made alteration of the land surface resulting in a change in the topography or existing vegetative or nonvegetative soil cover, that may result in runoff and lead to an increase in soil erosion and movement of sediment into waters of the state.”  At the trial court hearing, the town of Raymond’s engineer testified that the changes made by the Vogts restricted water flow and led to an increase in water on their neighbors property and that it reduced the amount of water flowing from the Vogts’ property into the Root River (a state waterway). The Vogts countered by saying that the activities were performed to clean and restore the existing drainage ditch, and were intended to reduce erosion. The trial court concluded – and the Court of Appeals affirmed however – that the activities of a party are what determines whether a permit is necessary to proceed. The trial court found that the Vogts performed clearing, excavating, filling, and grading on the property that changed the topography by more than a foot, and that the runoff from the Vogts’ property drained into the Root River.  The Court of Appeals concluded that the evidence sufficiently proved that the Vogts’ work constituted non-exempt land-disturbing construction activities. The holding in favor of the Town of Raymond was held by the Court of Appeals.

Statute of limitation runs on claims resulting from stormwater discharge

by Victoria Heldt

Charles Tsamardinos and Suzanne Tsamardinos v. Town of Burlington
(Wisconsin Court of Appeals, December 7, 2011)

Charles and Suzanne Tsamardinos own a residential property in Burlington.  They brought a claim for inverse condemnation against the Town of Burlington, arguing that the increased presence of draining water on their property after the development of Villa Heights Subdivision constitutes “physical occupation” by the Town, and results in a taking.  Storm water from Cedar Drive and from Villa Heights Subdivision flows through a culvert, across their property, and into Brown Lake, and that by this action the Town “has incorporated part of their property into its storm water management system.”  They provided two expert witnesses, the first being Hey and Associates, Inc.  The company reported that the problem was indeed due to water flowing through the culvert under Cedar Drive and that the Town was responsible for the drainage system.  Jendusa Design, the second expert witness, similarly described the source of the problem and reported that the flooding had been occurring over the past eight years. The district court denied the claim, finding that a legal taking did not occur, and further finding that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals ruled against the Tsamardinos on the grounds that the statutes of limitations had expired regarding the issue. First,  Wis Stat. §88.87(2)(c) states that a property owner has three years to file a complaint if a government agency has damaged property due to negligent construction a highway or railroad grade (this would include the culvert).  Since the culvert was constructed 24 years prior, and flooding problems had been occurring for at least 8 years according to the expert witnesses, the Tsamardinos filed the complaint too late.  In response to the alternative claim that the water run-off is due to the development of the Villa Heights subdivision, the Court found that claim to be barred as well.  The governing statue requires a complaint to be filed within ten years of completion of the improvement on the property.  Since Villa Heights was recorded in 1948 and graded in the mid-1960’s, the ten year period had expired.  The Tsamardonoses argued that they should be permitted to file a complaint outside the ten year required period since the time limit does not apply to those affected by negligence in maintenance.  The Court concluded that their problem was not the result of negligent maintenance, but of the development of the subdivision, they were subject to the ten year limit.

The Court affirmed the lower court’s decision in favor of the Town of Burlington.

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