SOUTH CHATHAM – On Oct. 21, Fred Ritvo was delivering a pizza to a business in Commerce Park. It was raining and he saw a big puddle ahead, “but it really didn't look that deep,” he recalled.
He started forward slowly, but when the water reached the headlights, he realized continuing wasn't a great idea and began to back out. The suction of the water as he reversed ripped away his license plate and its bracket.
Ritvo was fortunate; although he lost the license plate, other than a fog lamp his car was undamaged. Others who tried to make it through the standing water on Commerce Park South were not as fortunate. Many cars had to be towed out and suffered more substantial damage. Property owners in the area say a car gets stuck in the water on average at least once a week. There's even an Instagram account, chathamlagoon, with dozens of photos of stranded vehicles.
Call it a puddle, a pond, a lake or a lagoon, the water at a low point along Commerce Park South has claimed many victims and is not likely to go away anytime soon.
“It's dangerous,” said Select Board Chair Jeffrey Dykens. “I almost drowned my car in there last year.”
Runoff from the roadway as well as many of the surrounding properties — some suspect it comes from as far as Route 137 — ponds at the low spot, where drainage structures installed when Commerce Park was developed in the 1970s have failed. A few property owners had the storm drains cleaned out a half dozen or so years ago, but that was just a stopgap measure. Repairing the drainage would likely cost tens of thousands of dollars, and unless that can be done, the situation isn't likely to change until the town sewers the industrial park.
One problem is that the road is private, which precludes the town doing the repairs without either taking the road or securing easements, which will happen when it's time to put in sewers. There is no association of property owners in Commerce Park, and nobody seems to know who actually owns the road.
Stephen Daniel, who owns a property adjacent to the ponding, put up a sign warning drivers that the water was deep. Across the street, signs warn drivers not to try to cut through private property. In October, an inflatable alligator could be seen floating in the water.
“A lot of beaters have ended up drowned in that thing,” Daniel said, “but also a lot of BMWs.”
Workers at Whiteley Plumbing and Heating have to drive around Commerce Park North to get to and from the company's Commerce Park South facility.
“It's inconvenient, but that part isn't terrible,” said Eric Whiteley. What's worse is what is “essentially a lake” never seems to go away, even in the summer, and that anything that falls on the pavement in the area — not just rain but other substances from the various industrial uses in the park — ends up in the water.
“Anything that gets on the ground ends up there, and then it sits,” he said. “It can get unpleasant and I would argue can be unhealthy.”
It can also pose a safety hazard, and not only for vehicles that get stuck in the water. During heavy rain in October, a section of Commerce Park North also flooded, making it nearly impossible to get between the two roads. Several patrons of BodyStrong Fitness were stranded at the gym, said co-owner Brian Beneduce.
“It's just a swamp,” he said of the flooded roadway. “It's a real issue. Everybody seems to know that, but that's as far as it goes.”
The fire department has been called for vehicles stranded in the water, said Deputy Chief Justin Tavano. No one has had to be rescued yet, but if needed, the department has the resources to do so, including a high-water vehicle.
“If there's an emergency, we'll get people out,” he said.
Several years ago, Daniel, Whiteley and several other Commerce Park property owners pooled their money to get storm drains around the ponding cleaned out.
“For a while there it was much, much better,” Daniel said. But eventually the drains filled in again and the ponding returned.
From talking with engineers and others, Daniel said he concluded that the storm drains put in 40 years ago when the industrial park was developed were undersized, and many of the storm drains on properties adjacent to the roadway were in the wrong place and didn't do their job of catching runoff before it gets to the road. A nearby rain garden helped when it was maintained, but at some point that stopped. All of the leaching basins, which are supposed to absorb road runoff, have failed, he said.
“So it's just continued to degrade,” Daniel said. Four or five years ago, he received a quote of $55,000 to $60,000 to replace the drainage, which would likely be significantly higher today. It was hard enough getting the few thousand dollars it took to do the storm drain cleaning project; he doesn't have much confidence that property owners in the industrial park would contribute enough to repair the drainage.
Last summer, concerned with the public health implications of the standing water, the town worked with a fish processing company on one of the abutting properties that may have been contributing to the runoff problem, said Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson.
“It's not the best situation in the world, but being a private road, there's only so much we can do,” he said.
Designs for sewers in Commerce Park are in development, he said, but while funding for the project is in place, it's going to be three to five years before the work begins. There's some “challenging engineering” that needs to be done, including locating pump stations, one of which will likely have to go where the ponding now occurs. When the town puts sewers down a private road, it takes a utility easement which allows it to address water, sewer and drainage issues, which will pave the way for rebuilding Commerce Park South's drainage system, ameliorating that ponding problem.
In the meantime, there doesn't seem to be any short-term solution in the offing to drain Lake Commerce Park, and as of Monday, Fred Ritvo has not yet found his license plate, despite trying to wade into the water to locate it.
“The water is disgusting,” he commented.
“I wouldn't drive through there even when there's no water,” added Whiteley.