Today the St. Louis area is experiencing a sleet and snow mixture. In a week or so, it will be time to start some seeds indoors for the earliest garden plants such as onions and chives. See the Schnarr’s Hardware calendar that includes suggested seed starting, planting times and harvest times for the St. Louis area. That means it’s not too early to plan your garden for 2020! I’ve been practicing landscape plan drawing as I work on my garden plan. More examples and more details are on the Schnarr’s blog!
Our next door neighbor has been discharging most of her drainage into our yard for years, causing thousands of dollars of damage to our property. We installed rain gardens to keep her runoff from further damaging our home. St. Louis County wants us to get rid of our fixes and be subjected to damage again when the problem originates next door. I’m going to document our steps again as we fight this plus the time I’m spending, so I’m beginning a new log. Where we left off, I had spent 27.81 hours working on our defense.
The first log explaining the background is here:
Drainage Problems Are Bringing Tom and Me To Court
01-14-20 – Received letter saying we have to remove our landscaping along the fence line.
01-15-20 – I sent an email to an official from MSD, the St. Louis County Property Complaints division, and John Geiler of St. Louis County. I left phone messages for John Geiler and Mike Hite (whose name is on the notice of violation letter). I requested a personal meeting with John Geiler so I can tour the property with him and show him the problems. I sent a copy of the letter to my attorney requesting legal assistance. I also sent a link to this update to the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, Stream Teams United, River Des Peres Watershed Coalition, Environment Missouri, Open Space Council for the St. Louis Region, Deer Creek Watershed Alliance, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, and Great Rivers Greenway.
Time spent as of 01-15-20 – 28.39 hours
Update 01-16-20: Since yesterday, I have been contacted by the St. Louis County inspector, a representative from MSD, and a representative from the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center. Here is an email I sent to the MSD representative and the supervisor of the inspector a few minutes ago. It will fill you in on the situation as of right now.
“Hi, I really appreciate your call yesterday. This letter is being copied to Mike Hite and John Geiler of St. Louis County, and will be published here shortly:
Here, as requested, is what it says in the notice about the exact violation.
“Violation 1 302.2 Grading and Drainage. Health Related. All premises shall be graded and maintained to prevent the erosion of soil and to prevent the accumulation of stagnant water thereon. REMOVE THE LANDSCAPING ALONG YOUR FENCE WHERE THE WATER CAN FLOW AS IT WAS DESIGNED.”
Mike Hite, who is the inspector listed on the notice, called me this morning and let me know that he received my email. In his message he said that people always block the water from the other yard. He assumed we did that, but we did not do that, the water was not blocked but facilitated in the flow from her yard to ours. Just because other people do it, it does not follow that that is what we did.
I don’t know why no one from the county will look at the actual property, look at the pictures I’ve provided or the videos to see the following.
Water was on both sides of the fence before I did anything. Photos are in my first article with dates on them showing this. I can show you on my phone to show when I took the photos and did not fake the dates on the graphic. Here it is:
The flow of water from her property to ours probably worked fine in the 1950s when these homes were built. Here is what happened. Over the years, lawns on both sides got mowed over and over, but you can’t mow the actual fence line. Over the years, plant roots and organic matter build up along the fence, creating a high spot along the fence line. This trapped water on her side. At the same time, repeated inundations of water in both yards, and nothing planted in the yards in the affected area except turfgrass, caused the soil to be compacted in the areas that collect water. Turfgrass is not a very permeable surface especially if maintained for decades in a way that depletes the soil. So the problem the county says we caused was pre-existing.
Over the years, apparently more of her yard was paved causing runoff to have to be dumped into a smaller area of soil than the drainage was originally designed for, exacerbating the problem further. I can’t return the property to the original configuration it was designed in because the property next to us (7409 Rockwood Dr) already altered the dynamic decades ago causing much damage to the soil and altering the original drainage forever. When these houses were built they did not design the situation to still be sustainable 70 years later. We know a lot more about landscaping and how it affects water and soil than we did in 1954. Even if I could return the landscaping in both yards to it’s 1950s state, the problem would occur again over time. My landscaping is designed to be sustainable because I’ve used the knowledge we now have in the 21st century to make it so.
When I first built the raised bed along the fence line, the neighbor thought it was ugly so she complained that it was trapping water on her side. I don’t know if that was true or not since water was already trapped on her side before I did anything. Nevertheless, I knew that was not a desirable outcome and having no inclination to damage her already unattractive yard and feeble turfgrass further I took steps to make sure that does not happen. I removed the bricks in the low spot, removed the bricks along the back edge of the bed (solely because she told me she thought they were ugly, I replaced them with fine black mesh that is less visible and also more permeable just in case), made my collection area on our side larger and lower than her side, and now her yard drains completely. That is not all I did, you have a full list from my previous article, but those are the major things.
Her yard didn’t drain completely BEFORE we changed anything. I have checked it after each and every rain (other than when we were in Yellowstone last summer) to make sure (edit after sending) it does now. We IMPROVED the existing problem rather than causing it as we have been accused of doing.
Here is a link to an image that has been available to the county since July 2019.
Mike said in his phone message to me that he could not find one of the drainage pipes that is closer than 10 feet when he came to our property. I question whether the inspectors actually get out of their trucks to look because I witnessed one in May (the 2nd) doing an inspection without even stopping the truck all the way. This diagram shows clearly where to look for the pipes. I actually left one off when I made this diagram – there is one more at the north edge of the carport that I didn’t notice when I made this. Yes it’s hard to see everything at first glance, but it’s my opinion that if you are citing someone for a violation that has already been dropped in the court once, shouldn’t you be certain about these things? There is a real economic cost to me having to spend time fighting this over and over when it has been fixed since May 4. I’m partially self-employed and when I’m working on this I’m not earning money. I have plenty of proof in photo and video. I am willing to show it to a judge if that’s what it takes. Why can’t the inspectors look at the actual evidence when it’s been provided over and over again? That’s the part I can’t understand.
Here is the second pipe that is closer than 10 feet from our property (right photo).
This image was provided to the county in August 2019. The tape measure is shown extended to 10 feet. The pipe has not moved since I took this picture. I don’t understand why the inspector could not see it. You are welcome to come and measure it, don’t take my word for it. Are you not allowed to walk beyond the gate? That I understand. There is no lock on it, but if you are not allowed to go beyond that explains this whole mess. Please make an appointment with me and I’ll show you everything in person. This offer of a tour has been on the table since August 2019.
I also offered soil, fertilizer and grass seed to the neighbor at NO COST to repair the water damaged spot in her yard. I would even install it for free if she wanted me to. We did not cause the damage, it was caused by outdated landscape management practices that are harmful to the soil quality over time. But it’s in both of our best interests to improve the appearance of her lawn and if she believes we caused it I’m happy to fix it. I physically extended with my actual arm an actual bag of grass seed that I bought for her and showed her a pile of soil that we ordered from St. Louis Compost and offered her a share of it to revive her grass. The grass seed I offered her has roots up to four feet long which will help greatly in reducing her soil compaction and helping it absorb water. You cannot buy this grass seed in big box stores. She turned me down flat. The grass on our side of the fence is fine, even in the spots that flood all the time. It’s good enough that a client of mine bought plugs of it from me last summer. I’d love to tell this all to a judge, believe me, so I have no fear of being taken to court again. If you think that is a threat to me (the phone call made sure to include that), after reading the above I’m sure you can understand why it is not.
Thank you for your time.”
Time spent as of 01-16-20 – 30.25 hours
I have not heard from anyone except MSD since my last update. Here is copy of a letter I have just sent to John Geiler of St. Louis County who supervises the inspectors.
“Hi, I’ve attached a photo that I took this morning. With the water frozen, it’s easier to see where the wet spots are. You can see where the fence is. The top portion is our neighbor’s yard. The bottom portion is ours. This is the low spot in our backyards where water flows from one yard to another. As you can see, we are not trapping water in her yard.
I hope now that the ordeal with our rain garden is over Tom and I can start actually enjoying our garden! One of the many things we like about it is being able to pick fresh salads every day in season. I’m going to be really sad when it gets too cold to do this.
Since I took these photos, this monarch has hatched and is on it’s way to Mexico right now if it has not run into misfortune along the way. I’ve helped raise a bunch of caterpillars this year by providing habitat and I’m really happy about that!
Since I welcome caterpillars to my garden, I get species I really want as well as caterpillars that eat some of the greens I want to eat. One of my strategies is to plant enough to share. I also like to encourage beneficial insects that prey on garden pests.
Read more about it on the Schnarr’s Blog:
What is Eating My Mustard Greens?
I just left this letter on a neighbor’s door handle:
“August 27, 2019,
Hi, I’m your near neighbor at (address) – the house where the red Jeep is parked a lot. I’m sorry to bother you but I inadvertently caused a weird problem. I saw the landscaping company that does your lawn working at your house this morning. I have an urgent need for mulch, and grass clippings are perfect for my needs. I asked the workers at your house to fill a few containers with grass clippings for me if they were going to dispose of them and leave the containers there and I would just walk across the street and pick them up. I’ve worked as a landscaper so I know most of the time they just put the grass clippings in a big dumpster that goes to the yard waste facility to be processed. I gave them a small tip for their trouble. What I didn’t know is that they didn’t understand that I wanted them to leave the containers out in front of your house for me to pick up when they were done. They brought the containers back to their shop. It’s not their fault – I should have anticipated this and made a note of what company they work for – but I did not do that. Can you please give me an email or a phone call to let me know what company they work for so I can call them and get my containers back? I thought this would be a simple request that would not cause anyone any hassle but I misjudged. I would have given them a lot bigger tip if I expected them to fill the containers at their shop, I just wanted the sweepings since they had to do cleanup anyway!!!
Thank you so much!
Carolyn Hasenfratz Winkelmann
It’s not easy being green!
Drainage Problems Are Bringing Tom and Me To Court
by Carolyn Hasenfratz Winkelmann
In the spring of 2018, before Tom and I were married and I wasn’t yet living at his house, I started making a garden plan and beginning work on what would become our garden. I could see right away that drainage was a big problem in his yard and the garden plan would need to address it. Tom and I were also very concerned about the state of his basement. There were numerous large cracks and a couple of small rivers that ran across the floor every time it rained. Shortly after our marriage in August of 2018, we hired an engineer to tell us how serious the problems were and what should be done about them. The engineer confirmed our opinion that we needed to keep water away from the the house foundation and seal the cracks. He said this would probably be enough repair if we fixed the drainage problems on the outside of the house. If it got worse, we might need about $10,000.00 worth of pier work. We had the cracks fixed and next went to work on fixing the drainage issues.
Here are three photos of cracks in Tom’s basement that I took on July 29, 2019. The left photo shows a repair that was done some time before I knew Tom. The two right photos are repairs that were done in September 2018.
The garden plan I came up with is mostly my idea and I take responsibility for it. I based my plan on the following sources of information:
1. 16 years of personal experience gardening.
2. Completion of training to be a St. Louis and Missouri certified Master Gardener in 2016. (Link to photo of certificate). I have kept my certification current which involves at least 10 hours of continuing education and 40 hours of volunteer work per year.
3. I have attended workshops put on by MSD to learn proper techniques for managing stormwater runoff. Here is an article I wrote after one of the sessions I attended – MSD’s Project Clear and Our Local Water Issues
Relevant quotes from the MSD web page on Rainscaping (link here):
- “Stormwater runoff is created by hard surfaces that cannot absorb water, like concrete, the footprint of a house, and compacted soils.”
- “This (rainscaping) can be done through any combination of plantings, water features, catch basins, and permeable pavement, among other activities.”
- “In a properly designed rain garden, water will soak into the ground within a day or two, long before mosquitoes have the opportunity to breed. They can be designed to attract the kinds of insects and wildlife that feed off mosquitoes, reducing their numbers around your property. Rain gardens can also help eliminate yard ponding, in which water can pool long enough for mosquitoes to multiply.”
- “A rain garden gives water runoff a beneficial and safe place to go, helping to keep it away from your foundation where water problems can occur. It can also help reduce or eliminate water ponding on your property. Since rain gardens reduce the amount of stormwater entering the sewer system, they can help prevent basement backups and sewer overflows.”
4. I have read over the suggestions for controlling water runoff on the Missouri Botanical Garden web site.
- “Plant a rain garden or develop a swale to help retain water in the soil and prevent runoff.”
- “Incorporate rainscaping features such to manage stormwater.”
Here are the rainscaping features we have added so far:
- Rainwater harvesting – We have installed two rain barrels so far.
- Rock weirs – I have installed two of them at the Southeast corner of the property so that if there is any runoff that overtops the dry well at the end of the rain garden, soil will not be lost into the street.
- Bioswale/Rain Garden – I have made several of these and am in the process of planting them with rainscaping plants to absorb more of the rainwater than the clay soil can currently absorb. Quantities and names of rain garden plants that I have added:
- (61) Swamp or Marsh Milkweed – Asclepias incarnata
- (6) Common Milkweed – Asclepias syriaca
- (94) Blue Mistflower – Conoclinium coelestinum
- (35) Rose Mallow Hibiscus lasiocarpos
- (16) Louisiana Iris ‘Black Gamecock’
- (15) Spiderwort – Tradescantia ernestiana
- (7) Bee Balm – Monarda didyma and Monarda bradburiana
- (1) Shrubby St. John’s Wort – Hypericum prolificum
- Lawn alternatives – we are allowing four different kinds of water-loving groundcover grow in place of turfgrass in parts of the lawn close to areas that collect water.
- Soil amendments and mulching – we have added 13 cubic yards of soil (that’s a whole dump truck load) from St. Louis Compost that is 50% compost to improve the water absorption ability of our clay soil. So far we have added half a pickup truck bed full of mulch with more to come.
5. I read over the St. Louis County guidelines for land disturbance. We are within the guidelines because we are disturbing less than 30 square yards, less than 2000 square feet, are doing residential landscaping in a one family dwelling and have provided safeguards against erosion (the dry well and rock weirs).
6. I consulted with the owner of a landscaping company that I worked for part time for two years doing consulting and labor on client’s properties.
Here are some pictures that document what the yard looked like before we started working on it:
North West and North areas of our yard on March 27, 2018 showing that we had problems with standing water before I started any rainscaping. Also note that the neighbor’s yard accumulated standing water before I did any rainscaping. Here is a link to the shared photos to prove the date I took the pictures:
Tom’s Yard March 2018
The image on the left of this pair shows water collecting around the house foundation on March 27, 2018. The right photo shows water collecting around the house foundation on November 1, 2018. Here is a link to the shared photos to prove the date I took the picture on the right:
Tom’s Yard November 2018
Yes I drew on the satellite picture where the neighbor’s drainpipes are and where the water collecting areas were. Don’t just take my word for it. Here are some videos showing the water flow happening in real time during a rainstorm. These videos were shot on July 1, 2019.
https://youtu.be/UIGlDAK3McY – the two back downspouts in the neighbor’s backyard are shown. I don’t know if you can tell from the video, but in addition to the drainpipes being aimed at our yard, the neighbor’s yard is sloped downward to drain directly into our backyard.
https://youtu.be/usO0kYKr7Ko – this video shows how the front drainage pipe is aimed right at our driveway. We had to have our driveway replaced in November of 2018 due to cracks and damage caused by years of this water flowing over it and freezing and thawing in the cracks.
Here is a link to photos I took on November 1, 2018 showing new driveway and other pictures around the house foundations. November 1, 2018
https://youtu.be/Up2nHlhyf_c – here is a video showing how wet the backyard gets and how I connected the neighbor’s low spot to ours to faciliate drainage of her yard and to avoid interrupting the flow from one yard to another.
These photos were both taken on July 1, 2019. As you can see, the area was dry before it rained. Here is a link to the photos I took on July 1 before and after it rained so you can verify the date and that the photos were taken on the same day and that the rain garden areas do drain in between rains like they are designed to. Also note that the neighbor’s yard and our yard drain better than they did before I did any rainscaping work and the areas of standing water are smaller than they were on the March 27, 2018 photos. As I get more plants in the bioswales and rain gardens and the existing plants get bigger and the soil continues to improve, the ground will absorb water even faster in the future. As I add plants I add humus and the plant roots penetrate the clay below to facilitate drainage. The 235 plants I already have are doing a good job. More are coming, but it’s not easy to get anything to grow in clay and you can’t do transplants into clay and expect them to live during the hottest time of summer. July 1, 2018
My garden plan was designed to help alleviate the following problems:
1. Soil is almost all clay and absorbs very little water.
2. Clay soil not only resists absorbing water, it expands and shrinks in wet and dry weather causing cracking in the foundation.
3. The existing soil cannot absorb the runoff from our own house. In addition, the majority of the drainage from the neighbor’s property to the west is directed onto our property so that we not only have our runoff to deal with, we have most of hers too.
4. Our back patio and back sidewalk were tilted toward the foundation directing water right into the cracks and making them worse. In addition, since they were solid concrete they inhibited water from being naturally absorbed into the soil.
I decided to draw up a plan that addressed these issues and employed rainscaping techniques because my conscience will not allow me to direct water right into the storm sewers when I know that MSD is spending billions of dollars to try to alleviate flooding in our area caused by too much storm runoff AND I’m well aware of how to manage our own storm water responsibly and avoid contributing to flooding and poor water quality downstream from us. How much damage has been done across the Midwest this spring and summer by floods? We’re trying to deal with our excess storm water in a way which does not just push the problem onto someone else. I know most people don’t take our neighbors downstream from us into consideration when making landscaping choices but we are not those kind of people.
Here is a 3 page PDF file showing the first citation, the summons to go to court, and the second citation. We took care of the invasive honeysuckle within two weeks, and the bricks before sundown the next day. Please note the dates of these three documents – May 20, June 25 and July 23. I am confused about why we have to go to court when we fixed the problems mentioned in the first citation in the time limit set by the county. The court summons was issued on June 25 when the work was completed by May 31 (to clarify, the bricks were fixed by sundown May 4 and the invasive honeysuckle trimmings by May 31 as required in the first citation). Furthermore, I also don’t understand why we got another citation before even having the court date yet.
Here in summary here are the reasons why I do not believe we deserve any citations or fines from St. Louis County:
- The next door neighbor who called the county to say she doesn’t like our garden admitted to me that she called because she thinks it’s ugly, not because it was causing her any problems. She revealed this after I offered her some of the dirt we bought from St. Louis Compost to help her raise her wet spot (which existed before our rainscaping as you have seen) and some premium grass seed with really long roots to help absorb water. You can’t get this grass in big box stores, the hybrid is only sold in select garden centers. I couldn’t understand why she was refusing and she said she just thought our garden was ugly. Her yard is much uglier in my opinion and one of the reasons I’ve planted plants along the fence is to hide the view of her yard. You can see from the videos that her yard is full of invasive weeds, concrete, trash cans, brush piles, yard tools and the like.
Ugly is kind of in the eye of the beholder isn’t it? This photo was taken on July 30, 2019. On the left is a very nice Assumption Lily in our neighbor’s yard with invasive weeds (Mimosa, Japanese Honeysuckle) around it. On the right we have an unplanted area on our side of the fence in the foreground and an herb garden barely begun behind it. So far we’re growing in this section Bronze Fennel, Garlic Chives, Peppermint and Korean Hyssop and protecting the soil in the unplanted areas with mulch. Which side is uglier? If different people were to give different answers it would not surprise me.
- We could have sued this neighbor for ruining our old driveway. We didn’t do this because we thought peaceful relations with neighbors were more important. This is what we get in thanks for that. I never spoke to her until I went over to ask her why she called the county on us instead of just asking us to fix what she didn’t like. It’s not like I went out of my way to cause problems with her. My computer desk faces her back yard and I’ve observed her glaring at me before through the window but since we never spoke I had no idea what her problem was.
- We have improved the drainage in her yard and the neighbor on the other side of us no longer has our runoff going over his driveway, therefore we have helped the lifespan of his driveway and possibly saved him thousands of dollars. (We know how much it costs because we just got one.) We disagree that we have caused a drainage nuisance to our neighbors, rather we have provided a solution to an existing problem and both of their properties have been helped at no cost to them.
- Water does not stay in the rain garden areas long enough to grow mosquito larvae so we don’t agree that we have caused a nuisance there either. As you can see from the photos I showed you, we already had a worse standing water problem BEFORE the rain garden was started. Some breeds of mosquitoes can breed in as little as a teaspoon of water. You can see from the photos that we had a lot more than a teaspoon of standing water BEFORE I started the garden. It also hung around a lot longer than one or two days. As a precaution I also treat the water when it occurs with BTI (Bacillus thuringiensis serotype israelensis) just in case we have more than a normal amount of rain for a few days. This makes our yard and neighborhood SAFER from mosquitoes than before we did anything – therefore we believe we should receive commendations for what we have done, not citations. Since we have improved the existing situation, we don’t agree that we have created a nuisance.
Here are three areas of the rain garden that I consider finished or nearly so. These photos were taken July 30, 2019. They have been planted with plants that can take varying water levels and clay soil. Their roots improve water penetration into the ground. I also added some better soil and mulch after planting. As you can see there is no standing water, even though it rained at least three times yesterday.
- The day before we received our first notice from the county, (May 2) I was out in the front yard working and I saw a St. Louis County work truck slow down in front of our house. The driver stared me down and gave me a foul look. She stepped on the gas and sped off. She didn’t even stop the truck all the way. If this is what passes as an inspection it’s no wonder the inspectors don’t understand the drainage situation and how the rain garden fixed most of it (still have to work out the driveway pipe situation so our new driveway doesn’t get ruined – was hoping to do it peacefully but quickly losing hope for that.) Note that the first inspection document says the yard was inspected on or around May 20, but the day we actually got the citation on our door was on May 3. (Strangely enough, on a Friday, the only day of the week we are both gone all day at the same time, and also the day after the county truck came by – suspicious enough behavior that I made a note of the date.) If everything is above board, why is stealth necessary? How do the inspectors know if there is standing water if they “inspect” on May 2 or 3 but claim it’s really May 20, when we go through long periods when it rains nearly every day? If the inspectors make a point of only coming on days when it rains or are not truthful about what days they come of course they can make claims that are misleading (if that’s what they are trying to do). Yesterday (July 29) it rained three times. There will probably be a time when we won’t have any standing water even during rain – when our soil is better. Remember we were starting with clay – we did not strip off good soil and cause these problems, the problems were decades in the making and started when these homes were built (in the 1950s). We paid over $350.00 to St. Louis Compost to ADD good soil.
Improving our soil. From left to right: Taking delivery of a full dump truck of 50% compost soil from St. Louis Compost on May 2. A full dump truck load is 13 cubic yards. 2nd photo – Tom spreading soil over where the old concrete patio was on May 6. We took out the concrete patio to make the ground more permeable so there is less standing water. Soil and mulch will be here until we are ready to install a new patio. It will be made of permeable pavers or mulch so we don’t bring back the previous drainage problems. 3rd photo – Picking up mulch in a rented pickup truck. Mulch makes soil drain better and protects it from erosion and compaction.
- The large hole next to the future patio will become our new pond and waterfall area. We will stick to the county determined limit of 24″ of depth. It will have a liner, filter, aquatic plantings, two waterfalls and all the bells and whistles. We wish it was done already too. It takes time and money to build. For example I could have been working on that the last couple of days but so far I have spent 9 hours working on a defense for our court date and I’m not done yet. Plus there is the time we have to actually go. That’s a lot of hours that we aren’t getting useful work done. Edit: total time I spent on defending us in court was 17.4 hours.
- The inspectors, if they come at all, seem to only come by when we aren’t home. Our neighbor can easily tell when we aren’t home and can tip them off. Therefore they can’t ask us questions and we can’t explain. That makes me suspicious about what is really going on. Yes completing our garden plan takes time. I don’t know of any construction sites that look good during the whole project. If construction sites had to be shut down every time it rained and there was a puddle or it looked ugly to someone nothing would ever get done. I think we are being treated unfairly and unethically and are not guilty of any violations. I’m considering setting up a webcam to see what the county people look at in our yard assuming they come at all so that we can defend ourselves more effectively. Should I spend this money on more garden improvements or more surveillance technology? Which will protect us more from fines and having to go to court? Questions I’m asking myself.
We don’t mind dealing with our neighbor’s runoff responsibly when she won’t, because the most important thing is that it gets done, but I think it’s wrong for us to be punished for it. When I talked to her to try to work out what she was really upset about she complained that our garden was ugly, that she had water in her basement, and her property taxes were too high. I can do something about making the garden less “ugly”, but I can’t do anything about her basement or property taxes. I don’t see why we should be punished for those things. We had the same problems in our basement and instead of attacking her we just fixed it and now we are being dragged into court for it. I have a co-worker who lives a few houses away and has water in his basement too. The whole neighborhood probably does because the whole neighborhood is built on clay. We’re trying to do something proactive and neighborly about it.
Here is a link to this document online if you ever want to refer to it and follow the live links:
If we have not already addressed all the court’s concerns please inform us of how you would like us to proceed in order not to be fined. We’d rather spend the money on garden and property improvements. We still have a lot to do. My garden plan was intended to be a multi-year project. Phase 1 was expected to take three years. The more times we have to stop and go to court the longer it will take.
Update July 31, 2019
Last night in court the charges against us were dismissed. As for the second citation from July 23, it appears that our neighbor waited until we were on vacation and there was a day with a lot of storms to call the county inspector again and say there was standing water in our yard. Of course there is when she has directed nearly all her runoff to our yard. I thought of filling the bioswale areas that didn’t have plants in them yet with mulch so this didn’t happen when we were gone, but I wanted to be home when I tried this in case the storm water pushed the mulch around too much and made dams that would cause worse problems. I did expect her to try something when we were on vacation but I’m surprised the county inspectors go along with it and don’t see what she has done to us by directing her runoff to our yard. The county is displeased that we interrupted the flow of water from her yard to ours, but her entire yard is a barrier to water flow. You can see from the satellite photo that it is concrete from one end of the yard to the other, and we got taken to court for about 10 bricks in a raised bed that took 10 minutes (or less) to remove. Well the inspector was also on vacation last night, so the county inspector helping out in court last night gave me his email address so I forwarded the this article to him. I had no way of contacting him before to explain what is going on. I hope after this he will just talk to us. In the meantime, I have no problem with putting some mulch in the bioswales that don’t yet have plants and don’t yet absorb water very well. They would still be porous and function as designed until I can get more plants in. It will take a little time for new mulch to get “sticky” and “spongy” and absorb water well so I’ll need to keep a close eye on it.
Update August 15, 2019
This was left on our door August 15. This is promising. I have a specific person I can contact with a phone number. I’m going to call him tomorrow morning. How do you think the conversation will go? Any predictions? I’ll let you know what happens!
Update August 19, 2019
I called and left a message for Anthony V. and he called me back within an hour or two. He sounds like a great guy, nice and reasonable and professional like the other inspector who helped us out in court on July 31st. At first he was talking to me about a different property and then he remembered which was the right property and told me I have to fill in the rain garden. It’s clear he didn’t read the article above that I emailed to him, or if he did he didn’t remember it. I explained to him the drainage issues the rain garden was designed to repair. I explained the damage to our house and driveway and how we had already spent thousands and were trying to prevent spending thousands more. I explained how the neighbor’s runoff is directed into our yard. I asked him to email to me a copy of the St. Louis County policy on rain gardens so that I could see what I was in violation of because I know of many rain gardens in St. Louis County and some of them are huge and they don’t seem to be a problem. He said that was covered under the land disturbance guidelines and I told him I had read those and I was following the restrictions in there. (I have a link to the Land Disturbance Guidelines above). He said he’d talk to his supervisor and get back to me. I missed his next voicemail which was not too long after and I gave him a return voicemail message so we are playing phone tag. I don’t know what the message is other than to call him. I gave him my email address so he can email me the statute I’m violating (assuming there is one). If I’m going to fight it in court I need to know what it is first! I’m very glad we can communicate instead of Tom and I just finding “nastygrams” saying see you in court that are dropped off when we aren’t home.
Before we got off the phone, I asked him how to report the neighbor’s drainage pipes discharging onto our property. He said to report any that are closer than 10 ft to the main office. So I measured the four pipes in question and there are two closer than 10 feet. I opened my measuring tape to 10 feet and took these pictures to illustrate.
I reported to the Neighborhood Services main office. I know it seems incredibly stupid and petty to be measuring the neighbor’s pipes and reporting how close they are. This is what I’m forced to do because our neighbor was not content to let us deal with her excess stormwater at no cost to her. She is the one who involved the County, so now they are involved. I would have much preferred to not involve the government and waste taxpayer’s money, I’m sure they have much more important things to do. I’ll let you know what happens!
Total time I’ve spent up to this point on our defense: 18.5 hours
Update August 20, 2019
Here is the answer I got from St. Louis County about the neighbor’s pipes being too close:
“St Louis County has no jurisdiction in Marlborough you will have to contact Marlborough concerning this matter. St Louis County only covers unincorporated areas .”
I thought we were in an unincorporated area, but if we are not, why is St. Louis County hassling us about our garden? Why is St. Louis County in charge one day and not the next day? When I have time, I’ll put in calls to Anthony, St. Louis County main office at the County and Marlborough City Hall and see where that goes.
Turns out don’t need to the above that just yet – response from County is we are unincorporated, St. Louis County has jurisdiction, and the complaint has been entered.
A little later I got a voice mail message from Anthony saying he talked to his supervisor and we have to get rid of the rain garden. I left a phone message for him asking him to send me a copy of the specific law we are violating and the name, phone number and email address of his supervisor. That’s the second time I requested a copy of the specific law. I have searched for things like “rain gardens St. Louis County guidelines” and “rain gardens St. Louis County restrictions” and I have found nothing.
Total time I’ve spent up to this point on our defense: 19.5 hours
Update August 23, 2019
Over the last couple of days I have contacted a lot of environmental organizations who might have in interest in this process and I asked them for advice and also if they have heard anything about rain gardens being illegal in St. Louis County. So far no one has let me know that they have heard it’s illegal. Some people are still looking for information or people for me to contact. I’m following up on contacts people have given me. So far the most specific advice is to request a copy of the actual law they think I am breaking. I have requested that twice this week and still don’t have it. I have asked the inspector I’ve been dealing with to also send me the name and contact information of his supervisor. I don’t have that yet either. He has my email address, I have given it to him at least twice, once by phone and once by email.
I decided to use the form available on the St. Louis County web site for public works since I know it works from when I reported the neighbor’s pipes the other day. It’s here: https://stlouisco.com/Property-and-Roads/Neighborhood-Services/Question-or-Complaint
Here is a copy of my message:
“Hi, inspector Anthony Vecchio left a notice on my door on August 15 saying he wanted to talk to me about our property at 7405 Rockwood Drive. I have spoken to him on the phone and he says that his supervisor told him that I have to get rid of my rain garden. I have not been able to find any information online about what my rain garden is violating. He said it was covered by the Guidelines for Land Disturbance which I have read and I haven’t been able to find anything in that document that we are violating. I asked him twice earlier this week for the specific law and I also asked him for the name and contact information for his supervisor. I have not received either yet.
I have contacted a great number of environmental organizations in the area for advice. I have also contacted MSD, Project Clear and Missouri Botanical Garden since they advocate for building rain gardens and I know that MSD has spent a lot of money testing and promoting rain gardens. What I have heard back so far is that they don’t know anything about rain gardens being illegal and I should request a copy of the specific statute that they are concerned with. I have requested that twice, on Tuesday and Wednesday and I don’t have it yet. I’ve also requested the name and contact information of the supervisor of Anthony Vecchio and I have not been provided with that information yet. Can you please send me those items ASAP? Thank you very much for your time!”
It rained a lot on Wednesday evening (Aug. 21), enough to necessitate the City of Brentwood (where I used to live and still own a condo) sending me flash flood warnings on my phone and in my email. I checked the rain gardens and bioswales to see how they were draining. They did look like they were probably on track to drain within 1 to 2 days if it didn’t rain again, but I realized I needed to take action because Tom and I are both going to be at work on Friday and I thought it likely that on that day we would get another inspection to try to catch us out and accuse us of having stagnant water. The last time I got a flash flood notice (July 22 when we were in Yellowstone National Park) we got another citation (see the July 23 document in the PDF file linked above) the day after. AND it looked like it was going to rain again. I can’t skip work to intercept the inspectors and try to explain the situation so I did my best to give the rain gardens a prophylactic treatment just in case.
First I put BTI in all the areas where water was present on August 22 (the day after the heavy rain) as a safeguard against mosquitoes. This biological control needs to be reapplied every couple of weeks and these areas have been bone dry for awhile so I wanted to re-innoculate. The BTI is the brown crumbles floating on the surface.
The next thing I did to speed up the drying in spots like the above was to weed along the edges so that more sunlight can get to it when the sun does come back out. I also made the bioswale that drains it a bit bigger to draw more water out into the grass.
Until I can get more transplants in, I have to make the clay soil more permeable. I used a metal pole to drive holes into the bottoms of the bioswales and rain gardens. Then I sprinkled in some organic matter in the form of wood chip mulch and dried up plant debris that we use as mulch. I kept adding organic matter until the water disappeared. Unfortunately it started to rain again before I could finish and the water level went up again, temporarily. The rain fell slowly enough that I didn’t inadvertently cause dams where I didn’t want them. In time micro-organisms and fungi will help the mulch stick together and be more sponge-like.
I can speed the process up some by adding organic fertilizer that contains nitrogen and maybe an innoculation of untilled mature soil or a product designed to accelerate compost. When it dries out a little I’ll try this. I have some blood meal and a really good product called Love Your Soil by Jonathan Green that helps loosen bad soil. I did this process once before in late spring or early summer and it helped a great deal. Over time, as I drive in more holes the plants will have more soft spots to push roots into and break up the clay. Some of the native plants I’m putting in are adapted to penetrating clay with their roots alone which can only help.
Total time I’ve spent up to this point on our defense: 25 hours
Here is some correspondence that will catch you up on where we are today:
August 23rd, 2019, Anthony Vecchio to me
In regards to your inquiry regarding the notice of violation you received for the trenches dug around your property, the code violation specified is listed on the notice that was posted on your door and mailed to you. No grade may be altered in a way that prevents the natural flow of water or causes stagnant water theron. Should you have any further questions, please contact my supervisor Mr. John Gieler. He may be reached by calling 615-4100 where you can be directed to his extension.
August 23rd, 2019, Me to Anthony Vecchio
We have not prevented the flow of water or caused stagnant water. Rather we have prevented standing water and facilitated the flow of water from one property to the next. The water flows better than before, therefore we have not made the problem worse or created it. If we fill in the rain garden the problems that you think we caused will come back and then we’ll get in trouble for that. The evidence is in the document I sent you on July 31. Here it is again:
If you have not done so, please read it, look at the pictures and watch the videos. Then you will understand what is going on. Then please send me the rules I am violating. It’s not in the Land Disturbance Document. There is nothing in there that says you can’t have a rain garden, there is nothing in there that says you can’t fix existing problems with standing water and there is nothing in there that says you can’t make the water flow better and stop puddling in the neighbor’s yard. It does not say you can’t capture your runoff to keep it from going on your neighbor’s driveway so it doesn’t buckle like ours did. What you are saying we did is what it was like BEFORE we started fixing it.
If you send me the email of your supervisor I will send him a link to it also. I got his name from someone else at the county and I have his phone number. I can’t call him now because I am at work. I have contacted him on Facebook and LinkedIn in the meantime. I will call him Monday if needed. We are not willing to go back to having a wet basement and the house falling in. There are cracks upstairs that have not gotten worse since we fixed the drainage problems. We put a piece of tape at the end of one of the cracks to check. We care a lot about keeping our house erect and intact and we like the dry basement. I don’t think it’s legal to occupy a house falling in either. We would be negligent if we did not fix it.
Thank you very much,
Carolyn Hasenfratz Winkelmann
August 26th, 2019, John L. Geiler to me
I have contacted the County prosecutors and we will refrain from pressing charges at this time. The ordinance number that you have not been looking at is:
SLCRO 1110.507.1 General. Drainage of roofs, paved areas, yards and courts, and other open areas on the premises shall not be modified or altered to discharge in a manner that creates a public nuisance.
Should a complaint come in about a public nuisance created by the ditches you’ve dug in your husband’s yard we will be required by law to re-issue the NOV and seek compliance. If you want to create a “rain garden” at some time in the future, and the necessary changes involved with that process are in violation of County ordinances, you will need to seek a special use permit or a zoning variance. Those actions can be taken by visiting the Public Works office in Clayton and presenting plans for your installation.
John L. Geiler
Assistant Chief Residential Inspector
St. Louis County Public Works
August 26th, 2019, Me to John L. Geiler
Hi, thank you very much for your reply. I read the ordinance many times. The neighbor’s yard has drained completely every time it rains since May 3. (my edit – that’s the day after her complaint and therefore the day I started checking after each and every rain). Her yard used to collect water as ours did BEFORE I did anything. She told me the reason she complained is that she thought it was ugly. I will concede that most construction sites are ugly when they are in progress.
She is the one who caused a nuisance for US. It’s actually the other way around according to the law you cited. This blog post will explain. I couldn’t get Anthony to look at it as far as I know. Mike looked at it and he understood it. That’s why the charges were dismissed.
I’m sure you are very busy today with the flash floods and all. Please look at it when you have time. If someone would just read it and look at the pictures and watch the videos they would understand the situation. At any time you are welcome to make an appt. with me and I’ll show you around personally.
I hope someone is addressing my complaint about her pipes discharging water into our yard and contributing to the destruction of the foundation of our house. There are two that are closer than 10 feet.
Total time I’ve spent up to this point on our defense: 27.81 hours
One of my all-time favorite novels is “Duane’s Depressed” by Larry McMurtry. I’ve re-read it enough times to have it practically memorized. At the beginning of the book,
the title character is in his early 60’s and is the owner of a small oil company in Texas. One day he comes to the realization that he can no longer tolerate his current lifestyle. He decides that he has spent way too many decades of his life driving around in pickup trucks trying to accomplish things that haven’t meant anything to him in a long time. His house is too large, too crammed with stuff and too full of family members who drive him crazy. The town is too full of people who expect him to serve on committees, solve problems and listen to complaints. He doesn’t want to deal with the oil company anymore and eventually turns it over to his son. He abruptly parks his pickup truck, walks out to a simple cabin he owns outside of town, and abdicates nearly all of his responsibilities, despite protests from practically everyone in his life.
Duane has decided for reasons not known to him yet that he is fed up with motorized transportation. The new life he has begun has been simplified into figuring out how to meet his basic needs while walking everywhere he needs to go. His cabin has almost nothing in it so when he decides to clear some brush and stockpile some firewood, he walks to a convenience store with a small hardware department to get tools since he can’t stand the thought of having to deal with the people in the town and in his house to get the tools he already owns. The store owner tells him he is acting like Thoreau so he later seeks out a copy of “Walden” and reads it to see what the store owner is talking about. This is part of his process of seeking an explanation for his behavior that he can’t give to all the people who are bugging him about it because he doesn’t yet know himself.
A lot of the book deals with Duane’s thoughts as he’s working on his new activities. Later in the book he does engage in actual gardening but while he is still just working on firewood he considers walking to the store to purchase a wheelbarrow so he can work faster. Then he asks himself why he needs to work faster and decides that acquiring stuff so he can work faster is a slippery slope back to the old life he doesn’t want any more.
I think a lot about the decision of this character not to purchase a wheelbarrow while I’m out gardening. I own a few power tools, but I usually prefer to use hand tools when I can. I do not have a philosophical or moral objection to using power tools. I will use them when I think they will help me out. One of the reasons I use a lot of hand tools is that sometimes it takes more time to deal with batteries and rechargers and extension cords and power outlets than it does to just grab a hand tool and do it. I like the exercise that comes with hand work. Probably the biggest reason is that when I’m working on my own garden, I’m working for different reasons than for a client garden. Timing IS important when working on gardening and landscaping projects even if you don’t have a deadline or have to work in the most cost-effective way possible when working on a project. Sometimes you have to whip out the power tools to get things done during the right season or in the right order before something else can be done.
I’ve been periodically working on removing these invasive honeysuckle bushes and vines in our backyard for some time. I’ve been making a big push the last few weeks and last night my husband Tom joined in. So far all of this work has been done with hands, a bypass hand pruner, a small pruning saw and a pair of loppers. Yes we could get this done more quickly if we borrowed, purchased or rented a power chain saw. But if we did that we could not converse while we work or enjoy the bird sounds. The task would become just another chore instead of a restorative activity that makes us feel good physically and mentally. Another factor to consider is the apartment complex that is adjacent to our backyard. I hate it when weather nice enough to open your house windows finally comes along and you have to abruptly close them because all you can hear are leaf blowers, saws and lawn mowers. This is less of a problem if your property is large but as you can see ours is not and we have extremely close neighbors that I would rather not disturb if it’s not absolutely necessary.
Like the title character in “Duane’s Depressed”, I appreciate taking time when possible to do things the slow way and the simpler way. When I first read “Duane’s Depressed” 20 years ago I had not heard of mindfulness. I don’t think the word mindfulness is even in the book but that is part of what Duane needed without knowing it. Gardening is one of the things I do to help achieve it – when I’m gardening all I’m thinking about are the sights, sounds, smells, textures and sometimes even tastes I’m experiencing. The effect on my well being is almost like magic!
No, I haven’t yet read “Walden”. The character who mentions Thoreau to Duane refers to him as a “Yankee a**hole” and Duane’s therapist calls him “that gloomy man”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement is it! Have you read “Walden”? If so, what did you think? In this novel Duane also reads “Remembrance of Things Past” by Proust which he hates 90% of, so I haven’t picked that one up yet either!
I ran a test on an oak tree that is at the corner of my condo to see what the value of it is in hard cash terms. I used a really useful tool called i-Tree Design. Here is a screenshot showing some of the benefits of this tree over a 10 year period.
You can run tests using your own property as an example with different sizes and species of trees. The tool will even show you spots on your property where trees will have the most and least benefit. It’s lots of fun and very enlightening! Sometimes it’s a good idea to know how much a tree is worth when you are deciding whether to invest money in tree care or planting new trees.
Read more on the Schnarr’s Hardware blog: How Much Is A Tree Worth?
I’m in the process of making a plan for the yard and garden of the house I’ll be moving into after I get married in August. In the Schnarr’s Blog I wrote about things to include in a garden plan to make your property function well and meet your goals.
Read more on the Schnarr’s Hardware blog:
A New Beginning in a New Garden
Several years ago I made a ceramic plant tray specifically to hold three planters that used to be in our bathroom in the 1970s. The tray turned out the perfect size and shape but it got broken so I decided to remake it with scrap wood. There are two planters shaped like fish in the photo above. The third planter is shaped like a frog and it’s in storage so I need to dig it out and display all three planters in this new tray. Do you want to make a tray like this?
Read more on the Schnarr’s blog:
Make a Wood Plant Tray
Litzinger Road Ecology Center has an annual Holiday party for volunteers. I wasn’t able to go because I went to the Master Gardener party instead which was the same day. I did however get to participate in the fun of making centerpieces from natural materials and donated flower arranging supplies.
Read more on the Schnarr’s Hardware Blog:
Making Holiday Centerpieces From Natural Materials