Charleston Flooding (copy)

Storms on Friday, December 14, 2018, dumped several inches of rain on the Charleston area, causing flooding around Crosstowne Christian Church on Bees Ferry Road. Volunteers packed up the valuables from the Church that morning as Church Creek began to crest and spill over into the property. Brad Nettles/Staff

Crosstowne Christian Church knows how to handle a flood better than most. 

The church, as Pastor Paul Rienzo put it recently, is "in a constant state of rebuilding." After flooding three times in three years, its congregation of 650 has gotten the cleanup and recovery process down to an art: They're able to move back into the building within two weeks. Around the facility, there's a ridge on the wall, because the church no longer bothers replacing drywall at the lowest few feet. 

Crosstowne, off Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley, is one of the hardest-hit properties when the notoriously flood-prone Church Creek overflows. The narrow channel, which runs just about 10 feet from the church's back fence, drains 5,000 acres in the area, and has been at the center of a Charleston flooding headache for decades. 

But as the church considered its future, Rienzo said, the options looked slim. Crosstowne considered legal action, but the broad protections of the S.C. Tort Claims Act and ensuing case law means cities are generally protected from being sued for losses related to stormwater standards or management. 

Raising the building, one of the most basic mitigation strategies, also didn't make sense. Lifting the 12,000-square-foot structure would cost $2.1 million. Its total value, Rienzo said, is $2.3 million. 

The only thing left was to turn to science. 

“Once you get a study, everybody starts listening to you,” Rienzo said. “We can’t cry foul unless we have data.”

Crosstowne recently released a report from hydrologist Joshua Robinson. Unlike the city's broad-scale studies of the Church Creek Basin in recent years, Robinson's work analyzed real-time stream flow data from the creek, finding that the church has a 4 percent chance of flooding from combined rainfall and tidal effects in a given year. That's quadruple the risk necessary to land in one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood zones.

The new study also found that the church's flooding problem is mostly caused by severe rain events. By contrast, one of the major suggestions of a recent Weston & Sampson study of the entire basin, commissioned by the city, suggested building a tidal gate at the mouth of the basin — something city officials said they are not sure makes sense from a cost-benefit perspective.

While the city of Charleston has recently implemented some of the toughest stormwater rules in the region in the basin — rules that city officials say will help lessen flooding over time with new development — the Crosstowne example shows that residents and other stakeholders are taking it upon themselves to get the data to back up their flooding complaints. 

Some say they feel that turning to science is the most effective way to get the city to listen to their concerns. Others worry that too many conflicting papers could muddy the conversation around Charleston's flood threats, which are wide-ranging and differ from neighborhood to neighborhood.

"I don't think (studies are) ... necessary to get a voice," Mayor John Tecklenburg said, "but if it gives you something substantive to talk about, it adds to the conversation."

Better data or muddy waters?

Around the city, there are mixed views about whether Crosstowne's study was a good idea. Phil Dustan of Johns Island has been collecting data there, particularly involving the topography of the Burden Creek watershed. 

Similar to the work done near Crosstowne, Dustan, an ecologist at the College of Charleston, said he's found that a heavy enough rain can overwhelm the tidal influences in the watershed. 

"We're collecting data and then we're going to sit back and look at it," Dustan said. "This is the kind of thing that should be done all over the Lowcountry."

Some are less sure. Susan Lyons, an organizer of the flooding advocacy group Groundswell, said similar studies may not make sense downtown, where flooding risks are well-known and where the Army Corps of Engineers already has begun its own study on potential storm surge protections. 

"I'm not sure whether that’s the best way to go," Lyons said. "My own feeling is that the city really would do best to get a better handle on what’s happening city-wide, as well as within individual topographies, and manage the flooding crisis as a whole.

And for others, research may not be attainable. 

"I think this trend could grow and that's great for communities who have the resources to do so, but it's important to keep in mind not all communities will have the resources required to seek an independent study," said Betsy La Force, of the Coastal Conservation League. 

For Rienzo, the $60,000 investment was worth it. The church is now exploring possible fixes to its flood problem, including possibly building a berm around the property. 

"It's worthwhile putting money into the engineering side of it," Rienzo said. "Nobody's coming to bail us out."

Matthew Fountain, Charleston's new director of stormwater management, said Crosstowne's study is an important piece of the conversation, but it has different goals than past work by the city, which assessed the behavior of the entire basin, not a specific property. 

"Joshua Robinson is an excellent engineer. It probably worked out well for them because they have a good study, they got good data, they want to work with us," Fountain said. "But there there is a potential to muddy the waters."

Church Creek development

The Crosstowne study found that "any land development activities in the Church Creek basin will likely increase the flood frequency and flood depth" at the church. 

It comes as developers are just beginning to reckon with the new standards in the Church Creek basin, which Fountain said are designed to alleviate flooding issues over time by forcing builders to create more space for storing water. The design for one housing development, the Harmony subdivision, has effectively been scuttled

Another project, the Middleborough Condominiums, inspired a city councilman to propose carving out an exemption to the new stormwater rules so the developer could finish the project, which has been in progress in some form since 2007. 

Councilman Harry Griffin, whose district includes both Middleborough and Crosstowne, told The Post and Courier last month that he supported the carve-out, though he did not write it. Griffin said then he was favor of finishing the condo project because the construction site was an eyesore. 

On Monday, Griffin said he supports the city's new plan: hiring an independent engineer to examine if Middleborough's stormwater system will be sufficient for the additional units. The compromise came out of a closed-door session during which council members were told about the legal implications of a carve-out for the development.

"We don't want to make too many changes too quickly," Griffin said. "I'm waiting to see the feedback from that engineer before I make any decision on how I feel about it."

Meanwhile, the city is looking at several projects to reduce flooding around Church Creek. Projects such as the tide gate suggested by Weston & Sampson are lower on the list because it would be most effective during a hurricane, and that's not the only time the region floods, Fountain said. 

Crosstowne will continue to explore its options and plans to present some possibilities to the mayor on April 19, Rienzo said. However, a piecemeal approach to fixing flooding could create new problems. 

"You don't want to take water that’s currently on someone’s property and push it off onto a new property," Fountain said. "(It's) not helpful to create a whole new problem somewhere else."

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

Chloe Johnson covers the coastal environment and climate change for the Post and Courier. She's always looking for a good excuse to hop on a boat.

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