By Timothy Cox
Mercer County Engineer Jim Wiechart wants to exercise a provision of state law that allows the county to clean up obstructed ditches and drainage tiles and assess the costs to the property owner.
County commissioners gave Wiechart the go-ahead to work within the law to address any problems but also told him to seek advice from the county prosecutor's office on procedural issues.
Few drainage issues will require county intervention, Wiechart predicted, saying he would use the section of Ohio Revised Code only for the most "egregious" cases where impeded water flow is harming another property.
"This topic comes up at least every couple weeks for us," Wiechart told county commissioners Thursday.
Complaints are common that some property owners have obstructed an open ditch or tile, whether purposely or inadvertently, to the detriment of neighbors, Wiechart said. Some ditches were built through public efforts and maintained by the county engineer's office. When problems arise along those waterways, county officials can simply fix the problem with the maintenance funds that are paid by property owners as part of the property taxes, said Wiechart and two members of his staff.
But only a fraction of drainage ditches are on the county's program, and county officials do not have unfettered access to private property. Using Ohio revised Code Sec. 6151.14, the county can "put some muscle" into the issue, Wiechart said.
When people complain about ditches on private property not maintained by the county, staff from the engineer's office give them three alternatives. Upset property owners can work out drainage issues privately with the neighbor in question, they can hire an attorney and pursue the matter in court or they can seek a public petition effort to have everyone in the watershed pay to fix any problem.
Few people are willing to pay legal expenses to pursue drainage issues, Wiechart said, and some don't think it's fair for an entire drainage area to fix problems to have been caused by one negligent property owner. Working things out amicably does not always work, especially if neighbors have longstanding problems, Wiechart said.
He admitted some claims of water obstruction are frivolous, sometimes the result of years-long disputes.
Using the existing state law would provide another option if there truly are problems and would remove the legal burden from aggrieved property owners, Wiechart said.
"We're only talking about the most egregious cases where there is no question the flow of water has been harmed," Wiechart said.
If the county would intervene, the law also allows a 50 percent penalty to be placed on the offender's property taxes in addition to the actual cost of county intervention.
Sometimes even a subtle change can vastly alter the flow of storm water, Wiechart said. For example, many new driveways that cross side ditches are installed with drainage tiles running underneath them that are too small for the natural flow of water. Logjams and other debris can similarly disrupt the proper flow of drainage ditches, he said.