Water woes plague Munchy Branch home

Sandbags stand between house and overflowing ditches
A row of sandbags is the last line of defense to keep water out of the yard of this house on Munchy Branch Road near Rehoboth Beach. BY RON MACARTHUR
March 4, 2013

It's a safe bet not too many Sussex County residents have a permanent line of sandbags in their front yards to keep water from invading their homes.

That's just what sits in front of a home along Munchy Branch Road near Rehoboth Beach. Tom Griffith, former owner of the home, said it's the last line of defense to avert an ongoing flooding problem he says is caused by runoff from across the road. Griffith recently sold the home to his daughter and son-in-law, Teresa and Cass Ripley.

Griffith said the flooding issues got worse when state transportation crews cleaned out ditches in the area.

Griffith said water has invaded the property more than 20 times since he built the home in 1994 in spite of his best efforts to stop runoff. During Hurricane Sandy, the family had to evacuate as water went under the house into the crawlspace. His daughter recently posted a video on YouTube of flooding from a Feb. 8 storm.

Griffith said over the years, he has had numerous discussions with Delaware Department of Transportation staff. He said Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, stepped in to to help about a year ago and has been able to cut through some red tape. “He was out here taking photos during Sandy, and he made sure DelDOT had them,” Griffith said.

Schwartzkopf agrees the flooding issues were exacerbated when DelDOT crews dug ditches in the area. “The water problem was moved from across the street to their front yard,” he said. “We are working on a solution. Unfortunately, we can't do much in the winter except work out agreements.”

The issue has become a multiagency project. Southern District Engineer John Reed said Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control officials are working on an agreement and plan to pipe the water away from the road to an existing outfall in the nearby Breakwater Estates community. “It's not a quick fix, but there is a solution,” Reed said.

Griffith said when he bought the property in 1984, he was surrounded by hundreds of acres of farmland with very few homes. “I could see Route 1 at one time,” he said.

But not any more; dozens of developments and single-family homes have been built in the area over the past three decades. The land's topography and drainage have changed right before his eyes.

With sandbags in place, Griffith said he is not sure what will happen when the next storm hits. “Water could back up into Aspen Meadows [across the road] or some could go into Breakwater; I don't know. We are just trying to keep water off our property; we didn't know what else to do,” Griffith said.

The Breakwater Estates community lies around the corner from the house.

A ditch to nowhere

The main cause of flooding, Griffith says, has always been runoff from developments across Munchy Branch Road. A partial ditch across the road along the Aspen Meadows property line feeds runoff into a pipe that runs under the road into a ditch in front of the Ripley home.

“It's a ditch to nowhere,” Griffith said, adding during times of heavy rainfall, water comes under - and sometimes across - the road, starts to back up to his daughter's property and eventually overflows his ditch around the house. That ditch - dug by a DelDOT crew - replaced a swale. The partial ditch across the road was also dug by a DelDOT crew.

Reed said the pipe is one of a series of pipes installed in the 1930s and 1940s when the road was built to drain water to vacant farm fields.

Griffith said he was told many years ago by a DelDOT representative that he would have to deal with the flooding problem on his own, so he did.

He sealed the underground pipe shut with cement and it remained sealed for about 15 years. “It was't a perfect fix, but it worked most of the time,” he said.

Two years ago after a heavy rain storm, a DelDOT crew busted the pipe open. Griffith said he can only guess that area residents were complaining about flooding in their yards.

Griffith then built a French drain to cover the pipe with rocks. He said that worked for about a year, until another DelDOT crew appeared one day and removed the rocks.

That was followed by a partial ditch dug across the street along the property line of Aspen Meadows. Griffith said he knew that ditch would lead to more flooding on his property. “One week later there was a storm, and it was the worst flooding we have had to date. Aspen Meadows properties were flooded also as the water backed up. Water moved in a circle,” Griffith said.

In the ongoing saga, a DelDOT crew returned in September to dig out a partial ditch in front of the Ripley home. “But I was told the ditch could not go around the corner, so it's really not doing anything but holding the water, and it can only hold so much,” Griffith said.

Reed said DelDOT crews can only dig ditches in the right-of-way and not on private property, so that's as far as the ditch could be dug.

As state officials iron out a better way to drain his property, Griffith said a better solution would be to dig a ditch about one-quarter mile along Munchy Branch Road to allow water to drain into Munchy Branch Creek.

In the meantime, the family is keeping its fingers crossed that bad weather stays away. Griffith said they have been fortunate to escape any major damage over the years.

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