Susan Drive residents hope Elma Road drainage history does not repeat
“Note A” on the town’s official Susan Gardens subdivision map states that the properties are “not to be developed as residential lots until public sewers are installed.”
When a resident attempted to circumnavigate those restrictions in 1974 and build a home on the site, he received a letter from Robert Roesser, director of engineering services at the Erie County Department of Health, noting that “these areas were excluded [from development] due to rock proximity to the surface.”
Then and now, residents have fiercely resisted the idea of development on the land as apprehension remains related to what kind of issues might arise if that rock were to be excavated for the development of a home. Yet after years of evolution in septic system technology, the town is now confident that the land can be built upon stably.
Neighboring residents aren’t so sure.
They cite major drainage issues incurred at a property on Elma Road upon which a two-story home was built along with a basement. Shortly after the house was completed in 2010, it began to experience water-absorption problems with increasing severity until the town was forced to step in and install drainage pipes.
Nearly 20 years ago, Michael Metzger of Metzger Civil Engineering — who also facilitated the development of the home on Elma Road — purchased the lots at 4057 and 4061 Susan Drive. Due to the significant costs involved, the town never installed sewers in the Susan Gardens neighborhood, keeping in place the developmental limitations denoted on the neighborhood’s subdivision map.
Last year, residents discovered that Metzger had sold the two lots to a local commercial real estate owner who has combined the two lots and now plans to build a two-story home with a basement, stoking fears that the history of the Elma Road property could soon repeat itself.
The once vacant land was a scenic, countryside complement of trees as recently as May 30. That changed rapidly, residents say, when Natale Builders began clearing the land on May 31. It is now a barren plot of land ready for the foundations of a house to be placed, despite the absence of sewers, which residents believe could result in drainage problems similar to those experienced on Elma Road.
“I think if they weren’t building a basement, and they weren’t going to disturb the rock, we’d be a lot more comfortable,” said a David Road resident who didn’t want his named used. “We’ve heard stories that there’s a creek that runs underneath us here, so we don’t know how much water is there.”
According to the resident and his wife, multiple calls to the town and county were unsuccessful in determining if the proper building permits were issued prior to Natale clearing the land, leading the couple to believe that some of the processes were fast-tracked without due diligence.
“They emphasize in the Town of Clarence building permit process, that the [culvert] pipe can only be installed by the Highway Department, but our Highway Department has no record of anyone contacting them to install the pipe,” his wife said. “We watched a worker install it, and there were no town personnel here.”
The town maintains that the subdivision map that places an embargo on development does not give consideration to improvements in septic system technology, most specifically related to sand filter systems in which a network of pipes is placed on a bed of sand when the land features insufficient soil. The county verified the town’s perspective.
“The Erie County Department of Environmental Health advises me that a permit to install a septic system was issued to the applicant,” said Peter Anderson, press secretary for the Office of the Erie County Executive. “The installation of such a newer version of septic system would allow for the issuance of the permit. So, there is no new version of the map, and the approval of the permit is based on the installation of a new type of septic system.”
Residents say they’re also anxious as to whether blasting will be required to excavate the rock, an anxiety that the town says has no basis.
“Blasting has not been proposed and is not being proposed,” said Tim Lavocat, the town engineer for Clarence. “If they chose to blast, they would have to comply with all of the New York state regulations of a pre-blast survey.”
Yet, more so than permits and how the rock will be excavated, the most pressing concerns on the minds of neighbors are related to drainage. Last May, more than a dozen residents signed a letter to the Town Board citing apprehension that the project “will cause a very serious worsening of the existing drainage and flooding problems” and that “the existing drainage system on Susan Drive is not equipped to handle routine drainage.”
Neighbors expressed further concern as to whether a conflict exists given that Metzger, while he owned the property, performed a percolation test, or a “perc test,” to determine the water absorption rate of the soil in preparation for a septic system.
Lavocat addressed those gripes by explaining that the town did not “hire” Metzger to perform the test as it is not within its jurisdiction to do so and that the county only requires that a professional engineer perform the test.
Metzger, who did perform the percolation test on the land when he owned it, added that the seller of the property often has such testing done in advance of selling the lot. However, he added that the tests are only relevant when the property owner is considering the installation of a “standard absorption field” septic system. When a sand filter system is implemented, he said, the tests are immaterial.
“In this case, it’s irrelevant because the perc testing has nothing to do with the type of system that’s going to be constructed,” he said. “The natural soils above the bedrock there have nothing to do with that type of [sand filter] system.”
Both Lavocat and Metzger went to lengths to try to assure residents that the problems that plagued the property on Elma Road will not be repeated on Susan Drive.
According to Lavocat, a soil boring test was performed in March by a geotechnical engineer. The tests are performed by drilling holes into the soil in order to determine its permeability. The test was conducted seven feet below ground and did not encounter groundwater, Lavocat said, adding that the house on Elma Road was situated five feet lower than the lots on Susan Drive.
Speaking to the issues that transpired on Elma Road, Metzger noted that the new owner of the lots on Susan Drive hired a geotechnical engineer to install observation wells to determine if the same conditions that caused the issues on Elma Road were present on Susan Drive and that the results came back negative.
Metzger added that the bedrock in Clarence has fissures and that generally, the water is moving downward. In rare situations, he said, the excavation process can hit a fissure, and water can be introduced to the foundation of the home rather than being carried away.
“It becomes a problem for no one other than the person putting in the basement.”