A photo submitted by Wellington Drive resident James McCarthy shows extensive flooding behind his home after a heavy storm on May 14 that lasted approximately one hour. McCarthy and neighbors contend the flooding is a result of the clearing of land nearby to make way for the Glen at Cool Springs subdivision.

Quick, strong storm on May 14 led to previously unseen flooding for homes in Westlake Downs community, neighboring new Glen at Cool Springs construction

By Billy Liggett | billy@rantnc.com

When residents of the Westlake Downs community in west Sanford first voiced their opposition in November 2020 over plans for a neighboring community of 131 homes on just 51 acres, their biggest concern was the “high density” nature of the designs — the Glen at Cool Springs, they said, was “out of character” — built cheaper and more stacked together compared to their existing homes.

Further down the list of complaints were drainage and flooding concerns and a perceived disregard to environmental studies on stormwater management.

Fifteen months after the Sanford City Council approved construction of the community despite resident objections and a unanimous vote by the Sanford Planning Commission recommending they reject the plans, residents along the north side of Wellington Drive have launched an investigation into the cause of recent severe flooding at multiple homes and a neighborhood playground along the construction site.

Heavy rainfall that lasted approximately one hour on May 14 led to waist-high flooding in James and Pamela McCarthy’s backyard, and had they not risked injury that day to remove sticks and other debris from an adjoining drainage pipe, things could have been worse, they say. The McCarthys are adamant the flooding was a result of land grading and the clearing of 51 acres worth of trees behind their home, and as of this writing, they have not been in contact with contractors or the landowners.

“There’s a lot of growth going on in Sanford, and we understand that and our concerns at the beginning of all of this were represented quite eloquently,” McCarthy said. “So we’re not against the growth, but if you’re going to do the work back here, how about you make sure that the planning is all properly handled? Make sure this type of situation does get to this point in the first place. That’s really our issue at this point.”

The Glen at Cool Springs is one of several new subdivisions either in the early construction or planning phases in what’s becoming a “population boom” unseen in Sanford in decades. In all, there are roughly 6,000 single-family home lots either being built or under some level of review locally.

On Jan. 19, 2021, the Sanford City Council annexed 53 acres of land off Cool Springs Road between Westlake Downs and Southern Road for the Glen at Cool Springs after a zoning request was submitted by developer Dan Koeller of North Carolina-based Atlantic Coast Land Development. The north end of the subdivision will run alongside Southern Road, which features a handful of homes, each situated on several acres of land. The southern end of the Glen will run parallel to Westlake Downs, whose homes currently run anywhere between $400,000 and $800,000, according to current market estimates.

James McCarthy (right) and his wife Pamela talk with Westlake Downs residents Tom Wilder and Derek Borrell on their back deck, a week after their backyard experienced severe flooding after a May 14 storm. The group claims the flooding is the result of poor drainage management at the construction site of the nearby Glen at Cool Springs subdivision.

The first community meeting on the proposed annexation and zoning was held on Nov. 19, 2020, with 26 people in attendance to voice their opposition. Among their concerns: increased traffic for those “cutting through” Westlake Downs and the adjoining Brownstone subdivision, the possible decrease in surrounding property values, the perceived lack of cohesive design with surrounding communities, the absence of a buffer between the properties and whether or not existing sewage lines could handle an additional 131 new homes, and finally, draining/flooding issues that could be created or made worse by the development.

Despite objections — citing the aforementioned concerns — by the Sanford Planning Board, made up of citizens appointed by the city council, the city voted 5-2 to approve the plans, calling them “reasonable and in the public interest” as a “large-scale single-family development that is walkable with a high degree of transportation between neighborhoods.”

In a May 20 letter to the Westlake Downs Homeowners Association, McCarthy officially called on the HOA to investigate the flooding behind his and his neighbors’ homes, as well as the vacant lot west of his and the adjoining playground on Wellington Drive. In the letter, McCarthy described the hour of panic as he and his family worked to prevent the water from reaching his back door (a rock-lined creek bed runs across his backyard, under a small footbridge).

“The main culvert/storm drain next to our property became completely blocked with a large log, broken branches and other loose debris from the site causing overflow and flooding,” McCarthy wrote. “At the risk of our own lives, we (three family members and I) had to go out and try to remove the blockage in rushing waist-deep water as there wasn’t time to call for help from the city. … The area behind our homes was not designed to handle that much runoff. The current drainage was approved and put in place all the way back in the 1980s, so it clearly needs to be updated or rebuilt and addressed.”

McCarthy asked the HOA to provide recommendations to the state environmental office to “rectify the situation.”

Tom Wilder, a longtime Westlake Downs resident who led the original petition calling for changes in the subdivisions plans in 2020 and 2021, said the May 14 storm gave the residents a sense of urgency regarding the need for immediate flood controls until permanent stormwater controls are put in place.

“Since their controls are complex — with three environmental holding ponds to be built, pipe and drain installation and extensive use of retaining walls — that might take quite a while to complete,” Wilder told The Rant. “Right now, we are concerned about all rain events while no protective measures are in place.”

Wilder called current conditions — stripped land, downed trees and no protective measures in place — a “worst case scenario” for extreme flooding.

Derek Borrell, McCarthy’s neighbor to the east, also saw worse-than-usual flooding in his backyard on May 14 (though nothing that approached his home). He noted that the color of the runoff — a light brown — was the color of the exposed soil at the new subdivision site.  He said in his 12-plus years as a Westlake Downs homeowner, he’s never seen flooding like May 14 — again, from a strong storm that barely lasted an hour.

“The last time we had anything even close was Hurricane Matthew,” he said, and that was a slow-moving storm that dumped more than seven inches of rain in Lee County over several hours.

The view from the McCarthys’ backyard on Wellington Drive. What used to be thick forest is now 51 acres of cleared land for the Glen at Cool Springs subdivision. Runoff from the land exceeded their creek bed after a May 14 storm.

The Rant reached out to Taylor Morrison Homes, Iron Horse Contractors and Eco Turf Inc., as well as Koeller and Atlantic Coach Land Development for comment for this story, and only Taylor Morrison responded with a statement:

“Taylor Morrison is developing Glen at Cool Springs in general conformance with approved Construction Drawing plans,” the statement read. “We have made land development personnel available to address questions and concerns from neighboring property owners and have not heard of any recent flooding concerns from them. We remain committed to being a respectful neighbor to Westlake Downs.”

McCarthy said all he’s asking for from the builders and contractors is full transparency. In addition to the flooding problem, Westlake residents have endured several “dynamite blasts” on the land that have shaken their foundations. On May 24, smoke from burning trees made its way to several homes, causing another nuisance.

Wilder and McCarthy reiterated that the community has accepted the subdivision is happening and there’s no stopping its progress. But he, too, is asking for transparency and giving a warning to other communities certain to see new nearby construction in the coming months and years.

“Progress is progress, but they need to take their neighbors into consideration, update their plans accordingly and fix these problems,” McCarthy said. “That’s all you can ask at this point.”