The longtime flooding problems of Reams Road overflowed when Hurricane Ian saturated the area as it rumbled across the state.
And even as of press time Tuesday, Oct. 11, a portion of the road remains closed, causing commuter and traffic problems for thousands who use the road on a daily basis.
Residents have turned to local government officials with questions. How did this happen? Why did this happen? And what can be done to prevent it from happening again?
Unfortunately, the answers are neither easy nor simple.
“Until we elevate the roadway, flooding will likely be an ongoing issue for sections of Reams Road,” Orange County District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson said. “The Lake Reams Basin drains down toward Reedy Creek, and outfall has increased over the last 10 years due to encroaching development.
“We are in discussions with Reedy Creek about pumping south, because, based on the elevations, pumping water north would just push it back onto the same stretch of road,” she said. “Public Works is also evaluating the use of sandbags or berms. Long-term, we have plans to elevate the road in these low-lying, wet areas so that water and wildlife can move freely under, and we are in the process of acquiring some of the area for GreenPlace flood mitigation.”
As of Monday, Oct. 10, the Orange County Roads and Drainage Division said the area is seeing some improvement with the pump, but the road still has about 4 inches of water on the westbound side.
“We are currently refueling the pump in hopes to have this road accessible soon,” division officials said. “We do have to address a couple of locations on the road once the water is removed or low enough to repair.”
Orange County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Bill Vandewater also provided an update on Monday.
“At that pace, it appears to me, it may take another couple of days before the roadway can be safely reopened without vehicles crossing the double yellow line to avoid the standing water or hydroplaning,” he said.
A LOOK BACK
The Lake Reams Neighborhood Planned Development was approved Aug. 25, 1998, and is located within the Lakeside Village Special Planning Area of Horizon West.
The subject property went through a Comprehensive Plan Future Land Use Map amendment in 2015, undergoing a public hearing process before receiving ultimate approval.
During the July 28, 2015, public hearing, the County Commission supported unanimously former District 1 Commissioner Scott Boyd’s motion to remove an additional 20-acre upland island located to the south and maintain it as Upland Greenbelt, which does not allow for residential development.
However, the Upland Greenbelt does allow for road crossings, parks, golf courses, storm water management areas and recreational uses such as bike/pedestrian and equestrian trails.
Boyd said this was not supported by the developer for removal during the community meeting input process.
“My reason for pulling the 20 acres was that it was not contiguous to the fronting acreage along Reams and Ficquette and required the need for additional wetland impacts for connectivity,” Boyd said. “By removing the 20 acres, I felt it addressed the concerns of residents in the south along Abbotsbury Drive and would also provide when developed additional stormwater management and compensating storage during heavy rain events for the proposed community, surrounding area and those along Abbotsbury Drive.”
Boyd said the developer also was required to convey all right-of-way required for Reams and Ficquette roads prior to preliminary plan approval.
Boyd said significant input was taken through county, community and developer-driven conversations. His office held two community meetings related to the project leading up to the final amendment on Nov. 17, 2015.
“The result of the two … meetings … led to a reduction in the original proposed 280 residential units down to 75 residential units,” Boyd said. “Mostly driven by multiple upland island areas within the proposed development that would have required wetland impacts for access and a neighboring community concern about encroachment of natural buffers and periodic street flooding along Abbotsbury Drive.”
When former District 1 Commissioner Betsy VanderLey took office in 2016, the discussion continued as the developer proposed to the County Commission significant wetland impacts due to a proposed stormwater pond on the planned development on Aug. 20, 2019.
VanderLey said she and the commission remanded the request and the associated Conservation Area Impact Permit and PSP back to county staff for the developer to reduce the development program, reconfigure the storm water management program and reduce the conservation area impacts.
According to an Orange County staff report from May 5, 2020, a motion was made by VanderLey to “remand the cases back to the Development Review Committee; further, remand the Adequate Public Facilities Agreement for Lake Reams Neighborhood PD / DevelopCo Inc. Property to the appropriate staff; reconfigure the storm water management program, reduce the conservation area impacts, protect the wetlands and any other changes that are consistent therein.”
Throughout the process, the requested development plan was reduced from 280 single-family units to 57, and there was an addition of almost 300 acres of wetlands and uplands to conservation.
In addition, the developer’s land was used to address a flooding issue in an adjacent neighborhood, a reduced speed was implemented to address the wildlife crossing area, and the contribution of land and funds were supplied by the developer to improve the intersection and traffic signal required at Summerlake Boulevard and Reams Road.
LIVING WITH IT
However, many local residents feel the improvements have not been enough.
Robert McKinley said he remembers the Florida area as it was years ago before the increase in paving over a majority of the land.
“It just irritates me to watch them haul dirt in and fill in a low area,” he said. “That low area is there for a reason and what was a little pond or marsh area will now have houses built on it. The flooding is going to continue as long as they continue to fill those areas.”
He said he believes if the former commissioners had focused more on the issues rather than money, the community would be in better shape environmentally.
“I have heartburn with commissioners that just, to me, want to fatten their pockets,” he said.
Brandon Jo, who has lived in the Horizon West area since 2016, said the intersection has gotten to the point where it will flood with just a strong afternoon rainstorm.
“There is no excuse — the county has not re-engineered the drainage or at least installed pumps to move water away when it floods like this,” he said. “Frankly, there is no easy way around, and the county knows this. There’s enough development going on; they have the money in impact fees to do something yet they don’t. Too much development and loss of natural drainage. They will have to do something soon. Our calls out there have gone through the roof.”
Sandy Pirie, who has lived in Summerport for six years, believes possible solutions could include digging a 4-foot trench and placing a pipe under the road for short-term or raising the road 2 feet so the water does not crest over it for a long-term solution.
“From Windermere Cay to Independence, the road, about a mile, has flooded a number of times but usually a few inches and not the entire roadway,” she said. “This flooding is significantly worse. In terms of a Florida priority, it is minor. In terms of a neighborhood, the need is high.”
Wilson said she believes Reams Road should never have been so low.
“If it were going to be that low, there should have been more culverts to let water flow beneath the road,” she said. “As we approach the Reams Road Improvement Project, I plan to advocate for additional culverts and push back on any development in the area. All the remaining land is wetland and needs to be kept as is to keep historic water flow and wildlife crossings.”
Don Kendzior, naturalist and president of Noah’s Notes, a nonprofit environmental organization, has lived in Horizon West for 13 years. He remembers when Reams Road was a straight two-lane country road.
Noah’s Notes sent out a notice to area residents regarding the potential for flooding on Aug. 29.
“Exceptionally heavy rainfall has brought the Lake Reams watershed above its normal wet season high level, and the watershed is approaching its maximum stormwater storage capacity,” the notice read. “The watershed is comprised of Lake Reams and the surrounding wetlands and conservation areas in the eastern quadrant of Horizon West. Water levels have now exceeded the high point prior to Hurricane Irma in September 2017, when 15 inches of additional rainfall flooded Reams Road and surrounding areas.”
The nonprofit also followed up by sending a memo to Wilson regarding road and safety improvements with an immediate action and long-term action plan Thursday, Oct. 6.
Kendzior’s organization testified before the commission in opposition to the DevelopCo, now Dream Finders Home, project coming to the area with concerns he believes are now coming to fruition. He has advocated for raised crossings and larger drainage culverts on Reams for several years.
Dream Finders purchased 306-acres with plans to create The Palms at Windermere, a single-family home community, on Reams Road.
The property — which Dream Finders purchased for $5.87 million — is part of a conservation area consisting of more than 1,200 acres around Lake Reams.
“Most of the land there is considered wetlands and is classified as a conservation area,” Gerry Boeneman, president of the company’s Central Florida Division said in a press release. “Because of that, only 15.95 acres of the 305 can be developed and we will build only 57 homes.”
Although Dream Finders officials said construction and sales are scheduled to begin this month, the development area also was flooded during the storm. Dream Finders did not respond to multiple inquires seeking comment by press time Tuesday, Oct. 11.
Kendzior said the criteria used for evaluating environmental impacts of developments is out of date and does not reflect the impacts of climate change or address and mitigate the impacts of development on wildlife, biodiversity and flooding.
In addition, the historic flow between Lake Reams and Bay Lake has been blocked by development, Reams Road and canals. The dominant flow is now to the south and southeast while water levels overwhelm the existing pipe culvert between Peachtree Park Court and Greenbank Boulevard.
Kendzior said the flooding issue is a decade in the making and the result of the cumulative impacts of poor planning and climate change.
“There will be more Ians, stronger and more frequent in the future,” he said. “The blame lies squarely on former commissioners Boyd and VanderLey for approving the developments in watersheds that destroyed wetlands and uplands and subjecting future residents to increased flood risk.”
Boyd said the roads were designed as rural roads decades before he or VanderLey served and thousands of residents have since moved there.
He said the scheduled improvements to the roads, paid for by development and former Mayor Teresa Jacobs’ INVEST funds, will be designed to meet the standard 100-year flood stage.
“It is also important to note that prior to Ian, we have received higher- than-average rainfall thereby saturating the area prior to Hurricane Ian,” Boyd said. “Ian then produced twice the amount of rain that a 100-year flood is defined by — 11 inches in a 24- hour period. In many areas of Orange County, there was twice that amount of rain. Given that, the design, which again, was done years prior to either me or VanderLey serving, would have been inadequate due to an unforeseen amount of rainfall.”
Boyd said if Wilson wants to change county policies, thus requiring development design to accommodate 200- or even 500-year storms, then she is well within her rights to do so. However, he said by doing this, it would likely diminish all affordability of housing in unincorporated Orange County and likely would not be followed by cities and towns.
Reams Road is scheduled for widening and improvement, with completion estimated in 2026.