Century-old tunnel under Lawrence neighborhood raises concerns
photo by: Kansas Historical Society
When Sarah Merriman and Donna Geisler bought their house at 812 Ohio St. last year, they had no idea that a more than century-old brick tunnel large enough for a person to walk through ran directly under the house. Neither did the city.
A ravine once ran through Old West Lawrence to the Kansas River, but in 1911 the city built the 6-by-6 foot, arched brick drainage tunnel in its place and covered it with dirt. Eventually, houses were built on top, and some areas of the neighborhood are flooding as the tunnel and other nearby storm sewers prove insufficient. Now, the city and some homeowners are at odds about what should be done.
Merriman and Geisler say the house’s deed and title did not note the tunnel’s existence. It wasn’t until the couple was making preparations to build on the property that they found out the tunnel ran under the house at a depth of only 3.5 feet.
“It was pretty upsetting, honestly,” Merriman said. “We bought the property to improve it and build a house, and then you start realizing that this is a pretty big deal.”
No utility easements
The old ravine once ran northeast from Mount Oread to the Kansas River, through the current day Oread and Old West Lawrence neighborhoods and what is now Watson Park, according to an aerial map of Lawrence from 1880. Old city plats include what appears to be a bridge crossing the ravine in the area of Eighth and Ohio streets, according to a city report on stormwater issues in the Jayhawk Watershed. Newspaper archives reviewed by the Journal-World describe the ravine carrying water flows as deep as 20 feet during heavy rain.
The ravine has also showed up other places in the city’s history. Historical accounts of early Lawrence have noted that a large ravine ran through the center of town, and accounts of William Quantrill’s deadly attack on the city in 1863 say that some residents hid in the ravine to escape the raiders.
Merriman and Geisler likely won’t be the only property owners surprised at what’s running under their feet. Typically, city utilities are built along city streets, alleys or other right-of-way, but more investigation by the city found something quite different to be the case.
The 107-year-old stormwater tunnel instead cuts through about 14 private properties in the Oread and Old West Lawrence neighborhoods, and appears to run underneath or at least very near to about seven structures, according to recently corrected city maps of the tunnel’s course.
The city used cameras to re-plot the course, and found that instead of being built in city right-of-way, the tunnel generally follows the route of the former ravine, according to a new city report on stormwater issues in the Jayhawk Watershed, which Stormwater Engineer Matt Bond presented the to the City Commission at its meeting Tuesday. Bond told commissioners that the city’s stormwater master plan, created in 1996, also did not indicate the house was built over the top of the storm sewer.
Until the city put its cameras down into the stormwater tunnel, its zigs and zags through the old center of town had been forgotten. The city report notes that when the tunnel was built, no easements were recorded.
The stormwater tunnel was built in 1911 after a new state law allowed cites to issue debt to build stormwater sewers, according to the report. Newspaper archives reviewed by the Journal-World from that year indicate that the Old West Lawrence stormwater tunnel was one of multiple tunnels constructed at that time.
The report states that the tunnel serves as the primary storm sewer for the Jayhawk Watershed, which stretches northeast from Jayhawk Boulevard to the Kansas River. And, according to residents, all is not well downstream.
Old West Lawrence residents say some areas of the neighborhood have had issues with flash flooding for years. Several residents of Old West Lawrence attended a recent City Commission meeting and spoke about flooding in the area of Eighth and Ohio Streets, which they say brings torrents of water into the intersection, nearby yards and some basements during heavy rain.
Ben Hayes, who lives at 800 Ohio St., told the Journal-World that the basement of his house has flooded twice in the past year. He said the most recent occasion was June 12, when water filled the window wells of his basement and he estimates at least 100 gallons spilled through into the house. Hayes said that during especially heavy rainfall, geysers of stormwater erupt from manholes in areas where stormwater flows are constricted.
Like Merriman and Geisler, Hayes said he wasn’t aware of the stormwater tunnel or flooding issues when purchasing the house, and he would like to see the overall stormwater situation improved as soon as possible.
“These issues have been known to the city since the early ’90s, and we would like to have the flash flooding issue in this area considered as a tier-one project because it does affect dwellings,” Hayes said. “I recognize that that could take a while, but it needs to be put in motion.”
Merriman said she and Geisler didn’t originally know about the flooding, but learned of those issues once they began talking to neighbors about the stormwater tunnel. Merriman said residents they spoke with also were not aware of the exact location or age of the tunnel, or the couple’s other discovery — that the city made a plan to replace the storm sewer near Eighth and Ohio streets more than 20 years ago but never did.
As part of an open records request for documents related to the storm sewer, Merriman and Geisler received a copy of the city’s 1996 stormwater master plan. Project 23 in the plan would have replaced and rerouted the 1911 storm sewer in the area of Eighth and Ohio streets, but it and several other projects in the plan were never done.
“When we started studying the master plan — it’s 250 pages long — that’s when we discovered project 23, which would have accomplished that,” Geisler said. She said the stormwater fee initiated after the plan was adopted was meant to fund those projects, and so they began asking the city why so many projects were never done.
Merriman said that ideally, they would like to see the storm sewer line rerouted off their property so that the old tunnel under their house can be abandoned and the flooding issues fixed.
The report indicates that the city has thus far completed only 16 of the 41 projects in the master plan. In way of explanation, the report notes that some projects, such as the 23rd Street and Ousdahl Road project, ended up being several million dollars. The report also states that the consultant who produced the master plan originally recommended that the stormwater utility rate be $4 per 2,366 square feet of impervious surface, but that the rate adopted in 1997 was $2.
In case of collapse
A 107-year-old, 6-by-6-foot stormwater tunnel running under or near structures also raises other questions. It is not clear who would be responsible should the tunnel collapse or experience some other structural issue that damages private properties or structures.
City Attorney Toni Wheeler said in an email to the Journal-World that whether the city would be liable for such damage was a difficult question to answer, because it depends on the facts of each case and other circumstances. She said those include the conditions existing at the time, whether there was knowledge of some problem before the alleged damage occurred and whether there is a connection between the alleged damage and the city structure.
“I wouldn’t want to speculate at this point that the city would be liable for future damages,” Wheeler said. “We would evaluate the facts at the time of receipt of any claim.”
Liability has also been a key element in Merriman’s and Geisler’s situation. The house at 812 Ohio is a simple ranch, built in 1953, about 40 years after the tunnel was constructed. Merriman and Geisler, who recently retired, said they planned to knock down the ranch and build a bungalow in its place, using money from the sale of their former home.
Merriman and Geisler said it was in preparation for that building project that their architect consulted the yet-to-be-corrected city stormwater map, which indicated that a stormwater line ran across the back of the lot. After the architect asked the city for the exact location of the line, the city used its utility cameras to inspect the tunnel and found part of it was under the house. The couple then hired an excavator, which found the tunnel ran directly under the house at the depth of 3.5 feet. The couple said the city declined their request to move the line off their property, and instead asked that they indemnify the city if they were to build on the lot.
The report states that Senior City Attorney Randy Larkin informed the couple that the city would permit them to construct a house if certain conditions were met. The couple would need to have an engineering study done, and it would need to find that the structure would not harm the storm sewer, according to the report. The couple would also need to sign a release of liability, which would absolve the city from any liability if the storm sewer collapsed and caused damage to the house.
The couple said they declined to move forward with that plan, as they were not sure they would be able to get the house insured and it did not seem wise to invest in building a house on top of the tunnel.
Bond told the commission that when the city has abandoned storm sewer lines in the past, that the city has filled them. Wheeler said if the city were to relocate the storm sewer in the future, that the city may not have a legal obligation to fill in the existing sewer, but that the city likely would.
Plans for improvement
Merriman and Geisler and other property owners from Old West Lawrence requested that the commission fund project 23 as part of the 2019 budget.
Bond told the commission though there were cheaper Band-Aid fixes, that the best plan would be to reroute the storm sewer. The report states that the cost of rerouting the entire storm sewer system would be more than $5 million. To reroute the system only in the area of Eighth and Ohio streets would be about $1 million.
Bond said that rerouting the system would provide the best long-term solution.
“(I’d recommend) to go ahead and get that out in the right-of-way where it can be more easily constructed,” Bond said. “And then future maintenance problems, you wouldn’t have a conflict with the sanitary sewer in the alley and it would make it easier to maintain and to actually construct.”
After some discussion about whether the Old West Lawrence project should jump ahead of other high-priority stormwater projects, commissioners ultimately decided at their meeting Tuesday that the project would have to wait for the time being.
Due to the structural flooding, which Bond said the city was not previously aware of, the city plans to review the storm sewer and consider moving the Old West Lawrence project up in priority. Commissioners asked that the project be considered next summer, as part of the budget process for 2020.
Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said she wanted to wait on the project because she thinks it needs to be considered comprehensively, in the context of the entire Jayhawk Watershed and the new buildings going up on campus, which will cause more surface water run-off.
“If we don’t look at that as part of this whole project, we’re just basically not spending money correctly, I don’t think,” Larsen said. “So I don’t want to rush into forcing an engineering design, I think we need to look at it comprehensively.”
In the meantime, Merriman and Geisler’s plans to build their bungalow have been left in the lurch. Merriman said the whole experience of finding undocumented utilities and owning a property that can’t be improved has been devastating to them. After spending 15 months trying to find a solution, they said they see no end in sight. Though they would ultimately like to build, they are currently renting out the house.
“We have no plans for building because we are just kind of at impasse here,” Merriman said. “We’ve not worked on any designs, because we just are kind of stuck.”