Lawmaker wants homeowners to pay for pond safety

January 9, 2011

An Indiana lawmaker worried about the dangers posed by retention ponds wants nearby homeowners to foot the bill of erecting safety barriers such as guardrails that could prevent drownings in the growing number of drainage basins dotting the state's subdivisions.

Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, sponsored a similar bill in 2009 that cleared the Senate, but died in the Democrat-controlled House. He's optimistic about his bill's prospects this session now that his party controls both legislative chambers.

Bray said his bill could help prevent the drownings of children who fall into the flood-control ponds and disoriented motorists who miss a turn and accidentally drive into one of the small lakes.

Indiana developers are required to build such ponds to capture rain and snow melt flowing off parking lots, streets and homes' roofs in subdivisions. So are developers of office and industrial parks, some of which have multiple ponds.

"A generation ago we didn't have retention ponds, but there are a lot of them now, and I think if you're going to have them they should be as safe as possible," Bray said. "We've had some real tragedies."

While community swimming pools are ringed by fencing to prevent children from drowning, Bray notes that many retention ponds have no such features, leading to several deaths each year.

Last April, a 5-year-old Indianapolis girl drowned in a neighborhood retention pond. And over the past two years, several Indiana motorists have died after driving into one of the ponds, while others have survived or been rescued.

Bray's bill would not require the construction of guardrails, fences or earthen barriers around existing retention ponds, but would instead provide a way to pay for them. It would permit an Indiana statute called the Barrett Law that's typically used for debt financing to be tapped as a financing mechanism to pay for pond barriers.

He said that cost would be reflected in the tax bills of homeowners in subdivisions and businesses in office or industrial parks with the ponds. Bray said his bill would apply to existing ponds, but he hopes local zoning boards take up the cause and require developers seeking approval for projects to include such barriers in their designs.

Jeff Quyle, a member of the Morgan County Council who testified in favor of Bray's bill in 2009, said he will testify for it again if asked because he's worried about what he said appears to be an increase in retention pond drownings.

"It seems like two or three times a year you hear about a car found in a pond," he said.

Quyle noted that in 2008, the body of a Plainfield man who had been missing for two years was found in his car at the bottom of a retention pond only blocks from his home.

He said there needs to be a way to pay for safety systems around them, particularly since Indiana voters in November approved a constitutional amendment making the state's property tax limits more permanent. Using Barrett Law funding makes sense in light of the property tax limits, Quyle said, because it passes on the cost of an improvement to the individuals mostly likely to benefit from it.

"It's sort of a property tax user fee, in essence. The folks in the immediate vicinity of one of these ponds are the ones who are driving on the roads of the subdivision for the most part. They're the ones who are most at risk. And they're the ones who will receive the most benefit from having it there."

Rick Wajda, CEO of the Indiana Builders Association, said the Indianapolis-based group understands the appeal of the using the financing model Bray wants to tap into but has concerns about the effectiveness of some safety barriers that have been used around retention ponds.

In particular, he said the association does not believe fencing is an adequate means of protection. He said fencing could even endanger children who might find a way into a fence-lined pond and then slip and begin to drown — at which point the fence would be a barrier to would-be rescuers.

"Kids are naturally curious, they want to see what's on the other side, or just be on the other side. And once they get on the other side of a fence and get in trouble, how do the emergency responders get to them?" Wajda said.

He said that considering the high prices many lakeside homes command, some type of earthen mounding around a retention pond, or a guardrail along those adjacent to roads, might be a better idea.

"A lot of people pay a premium to be on the water, and you would think they would prefer some aesthetically pleasing barrier," he said.

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