Over the objections and concerns of some, and with pleadings for speedy action from others, the Wauwatosa Board of Public Works voted Monday morning to approve bids for a huge and suddenly controversial sewer project.
A divided crowd filled City Hall's largest committee room to near its legal capacity to ask questions or make statements about , as it is known.
The board's vote of approval could have sent the project directly to the full Common Council on Tuesday night despite any objections, making Monday's hearing the last chance for public input.
But concerned neighbors will get a little more time and at least one more opportunity to be heard, if for no other reason than that the lowest bid for the work came in at $2 million over the city engineering staff's estimate.
What was approved to move forward for design in 2010 and revised in 2011 as an expected $12.5 million project has become a $14.5 million project with the opening of contractors' bids on Friday.
That means the plan has to go back to the Budget and Finance Committee, scheduled to meet May 29, for approval of the added spending. Most of the cost of the project will be covered by the sale of municipal bonds.
Little had been said or heard about the massive project for the better part of two years since it was approved. But just within the past week and a half, it became a point of contention for dozens of area residents who said they knew nothing of it until workers started to mark streets and sidewalks.
Many of those people took time off work to attend the hearing, but so did dozens of other people who came to urge the board to move forward now.
Blame it on the glacier: Area is a flood waiting to happen
Their differences start with geology and geography and also a lot of meteorology.
City Engineer Bill Wehrley explained that an area centered on West Meineke Avenue between North 80th and North 90th streets forms a shallow natural bowl carved by glacial action. A low rise just south of Meineke acts as the lip of the bowl and essentially traps water in the neighborhood during heavy rain events.
The sewers – storm and sanitary – in that area were built in the 1930s, Wehrley said, and the storm sewers were intended then to handle at least the capacity of what was considered a 20-year rain event.
But age, additional building and its runoff, and other factors have reduced the capacity of some lines in the area to that of a five-year event.
Meanwhile, Wehrley said, in the past two decades the city has been walloped by five major floods and one out-and-out monster.
In 1997 and '98, back-to-back 100-year rains caused severe flooding and hundreds of basement backups. In 2008 and '09 came two more. Then in 2010 came another, followed a week later by record rains of July 22, a 500-year event that led to 600 reports of flooded homes.
Because of its geology, the Meineke area has been among the hardest hit in each of those events, Wehrley said, and those who have been flooded have been demanding a solution for years.
But geography comes into play because, to drain that area adequately at the least cost to all taxpayers, project designers needed to install huge new 9- and 10-foot diameter pipes along the most direct route to the Menomonee River.
That route takes the water out of the western edge of the "bowl" and then straight south down 90th Street.
Those below the outlet will feel worst effects of construction
Therein lies the rub. A majority of those living inside the bowl want flood relief as soon as possible. But those living along the 90th Street corridor by-and-large have not experienced flooding, yet they will feel some of the heaviest impacts of the project.
Over the course of construction, the length of 90th Street from Meineke to the Menomonee River Parkway will be excavated curb-to-curb, and if necessary sidewalk to sidewalk, with trenching up to 25 feet deep.
That will come in short increments, though, with contractors backfilling the trenches as they progress from south to north in laying the pipe. Every day, Wehrley said, they are to reconnect the progressing new pipe with the old so as to guarantee stormwater collection during the project.
Nevertheless, among the effects residents there will feel are repaving assessments, noise, dust, congestion, temporary loss of access to their own driveways or street parking – and the destruction of 60 or perhaps more street trees.
Speaker after speaker in opposition decried the direct costs and inconveniences and especially worried about how the loss of mature trees would affect their property values for many years to come.
They were also angry that the city had, they felt, left them out of the loop, having communicated the project well to the flooded homeowners but little or not at all to them. A number of people said they had no idea of the project or its scope until they spoke to workers surveying and marking the area.
Some said they received repaving assessments with no idea of why any repaving was necessary – some even said it was their second such assessment in as little as four years.
Inside the 'bowl,' flood victims despair
When their turn came, those who most favor the project told horror stories that earned them the sympathy, if not necessarily the full support, of even those much opposed.
Again, speaker after speaker rose to relate how their homes had been flooded six times, seven times, with furnaces, water heaters, washers and dryers replaced in some cases as many times.
They spoke of the smell of sewage, of black mold, of cherished belongings ruined. And they spoke of the impossibility of getting or keeping homeowner's insurance, of exorbitant rates, of the impossibility of selling their homes.
Mark Hill's particular nightmare began when he bought a home in the "bowl" – without knowing its reputation – in June 2010. Within one month he had suffered two catastrophic floods.
"I love Wauwatosa," he said, "but if I had it to do over again, I never would have moved here."
Laura Mierow, flooded six times, delivered an emotional address along with a large photo board showing her belongings floating forlornly in sewage-charged water up to the top of her basement stairway.
She told of how her homeowner's insurance now costs her $2,000 a year with a $5,000 deductible, and of the $150,000 of their own money the family has spent on keeping their home inhabitable.
But perhaps the most heartwrenching story was that of Mierow's daughter, Aubrianna, 14, who like her sister suffers asthma and other ailments that the family blames on the toxic environment of their repeatedly mold-infested home.
Aubrianna said that she had in effect lost four summers of her youth, lost the companionship and direction of her mother during those formative years, watched her mother wracked by anxiety for months at a time.
In a few years, Aubrianna said, "I will go off to college. I will never get those summers of my life back."