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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Plague of frogs: Five Mile property owners say stormwater pond is ruining their neighborhood

For retirees Lori and Bill Moore, the problem isn’t quite biblical.

But it’s close.

“That’s a mating call,” said Lori Moore on the porch of her home on Panorama Drive last week, after pulling up a cellphone video of the female frogs that fill the stormwater pond behind her home croaking in search of a mate.

“At sundown, they come out, and boy there are thousands of them out there,” said her husband, Bill. “The neighbors ask, how could you stand it?”

The Moores know how this story plays out. Soon, that croaking will turn into hundreds of infant frogs searching for light, hopping their way into the home they bought in the early ’90s and whose property values have plummeted thanks to the amphibian guests and high water table. The couple used to look out over waving wheat fields from their back porch on Five Mile Prairie, but now see dozens of newly built homes, part of a subdivision that is responsible for maintaining the single-acre pond beyond their fence line.

Some planning advocates say the city is abdicating its responsibility to inspect stormwater installations on private property, like the one causing the Moores so much heartache each spring. They’re now asking City Hall to revisit their policies and require such inspections to avoid ponds and swales from falling into disrepair, something they contend other big cities in Washington, including Seattle and Tacoma, already do.

“I don’t know why they don’t want to inspect all these properties,” said Kitty Klitzke, Eastern Washington program director for the group Futurewise that has advocated on behalf of neighbors concerned about sprawling growth on the plain. “There’s clearly these other cities that do it.”

Planning documents are clear about who’s responsible for maintaining the stormwater pond, and its partner a little farther north, at the intersection of Palm Place and Strong Road. A declaration signed by the city and Hayden Enterprises, the developing firm in charge of constructing the subdivision in 2004, indicates the Panorama Place Homeowners Association will be responsible “for the maintenance of the water, sewer, and drainage facilities” located within the subdivision.

Attorney David Shotwell has lived in the development since it was first built and serves as head of the homeowners association. He said that his group has been handed maintenance of a system and design they may not agree with, and that dues are tied up in administering other services that both the city and Hayden Enterprises agreed they’d handle when the association was formed, including water service, fire hydrants and powering street lights.

“The way that it exists right now is the way it’s supposed to,” Shotwell said. “If I had put that in, I may have considered an underground system that looks different.”

But hard clay beneath the soil makes underground systems on Five Mile tricky. As for the frogs, Shotwell said neighborhood response is a mixed bag.

“They annoy the homeowners probably to no end for two weeks,” he said. “Some of us really like them, and some of us really hate them.”

The Moores aren’t the only ones living with the fallout from nature’s cycle each spring in the pond. Across the street, residents Mike and Lori Whelan spend each spring maintaining a sprawling front yard where many of the frogs like to leap and the seeds of the swaying cattails land due to the high winds on the prairie.

“Usually I’ve got some white fuzz all over,” said Mike Whelan, who paused to lift the front hood of his John Deere rider lawnmower. He estimated he chews up dozens of the frogs on his property line while mowing every spring.

A red light indicator flashes on the cyclone fence when the system is plugged in, Whelan said. He’s seen the thing blink for days without anyone coming to inspect the machinery, he said. Neighbors in the summer are also worried about mosquitoes buzzing around the pond.

Residents have voiced their concerns to the Spokane City Council, particularly City Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who’s long been active on the prairie with issues related to population growth. Mumm said the problem was exacerbated by development on property that isn’t conducive to underground sewer and stormwater systems because of the soil.

“We fooled with Mother Nature, and now there are lots of frogs that come out of that area,” said Mumm, who noted she’s also heard from homeowners near Prairie View Elementary about frog issues after the school was built in 2007.

Futurewise wrote a letter to the city in March warning about clean water rules that Spokane might be violating by not requiring routine inspections of stormwater facilities built on private land. The group offered to map all private stormwater facilities within city limits to assist in maintenance, according to the letter, but instead was asked to provide legal guidance on what potential liability Spokane might be facing if inspections were not performed.

Spokane’s water department responded to the letter a couple weeks later, writing that they believed their inspections met the requirements of an Ecology Department permit to discharge runoff into the Spokane aquifer, the same agreement that is guiding the city’s process of burying massive tanks to capture stormwater and updates to sewer treatment at the Riverside Water Reclamation Facility.

Dan Kegley, the city’s wastewater management and water director, said the department is preparing to comply with requirements in the new permit that the city inspect all stormwater facilities in the public right-of-way and those that hook up to the municipal sewer and stormwater systems. That doesn’t include many of the facilities on private property, including the pond on Panorama.

“Some of these that are on private property, inside a (home owner’s association), that does not fall within the current guidelines of our permit,” Kegley said.

Still, Spokane City Council members and administration officials are in talks about a new policy or city law that would require routine monitoring of stormwater ponds on private property, said City Councilman Breean Beggs, who heads the council committee on public works projects. But monitoring previously constructed facilities will require an investment of more public dollars, he said.

“The council’s going to have to put money in the budget, to make it work retroactively,” Beggs said.

Kegley said such inspections would go beyond what is required in the discharge permit, but would be possible should the council choose to spend the money. The department has already hired one new water inspector to bring the city in compliance with their permit.

“If we’re going to go back, and inspect all of them, that would take a considerable investment,” he said. Kegley also said that comparisons of inspection policies with other cities in Western Washington might not be fair, because those cities operate with different stormwater discharge permits that have different requirements.

The pond at Panorama was inspected by the department shortly after it was built, Kegley said, and inspectors informed the property owners of potential problems.

“They were informed that they need to maintain that, and after a couple of attempts, there was no real response,” Kegley said.

Shotwell, the homeowner association president, said he believed the issue could be traced back to the city working with the developer to create a system that puts heavy burdens on local residents to provide essential services and police their own water usage.

“The city should never have allowed the system that our HOA is dealing with,” he said. “They shouldn’t have just given us the water main, and the pipes, it’s an unreasonable burden.”

For the Moores, they’re looking at more seasons of frog infiltration. It’s gotten so bad in the past few years that frogs have tried to infiltrate the solarium where Lori Moore houses her plants during the winter, and the groundwater has the couple running a sump pump in their basement constantly.

“We’re all really upset about this,” Moore said. “Tell me one person who’s going to buy this house. And what if it fails? It’s all just going to go straight down the hill.”