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'I've never seen flooding this bad'

Josh Meeder, Harmony resident and business owner, has witnessed first-hand the effects of flooding on his hometown and on his properties.
Flood planning a hot topic at Harmony borough meetings

HARMONY — In six years, Josh Meeder has never seen flooding like this.

Friday found the Harmony resident and business owner waist deep in water outside of his properties in downtown Harmony, as he did his best to deal with flooded yards and a basement fully submerged in water.

“I’ve never seen flooding this bad,” he said. “I’ve probably got 5 feet of water in my basement already.”

Born and raised in Harmony, Meeder moved back to the town years ago, purchasing Center of Harmony through his company Great Things LLC. In that time, he has never had a problem with flooding like he has this year, in what he has come to accept as the new normal in Harmony.

“I mean we’ve always had flooding but its just been worse in recent years,” he said.

All of this has made flooding, floodplains and what to do about them an increasingly popular topic in monthly town meetings and in conversations around the borough, with many residents placing the blame on development along the creek and the encroachment on the floodplains.

“There’s development all up and down the creek,” Meeder said. “It’s not helping.”

Meeder is involved with Preserving Harmony, an organization formed in 2015 dedicated to preventing what they consider to be irresponsible development in the floodplain adjacent to the borough.

They spent much of the last two and a half years opposing the approval of a development across the creek in Jackson Township, saying it takes too much land out of the floodplain.

Despite their efforts, the plan was found to be in line with Jackson Township ordinances after studies found the development would only raise the level of a flood by half an inch, well within the legal limit.

“We have to rely on studies that tell us what fill will do to a flood level in a flood event,” said Chris Rearick, Jackson Township manager. “It’s a matter of relying on the science, what pragmatically can we do. ... The township is simply following suit under the state model ordinance and under its ordinance.”

Jackson Township, like all municipalities in the county, is reviewing flood plain ordinances, and Rearick said they may be open to being more restrictive in certain areas if they find evidence to do so.

“Precluding any development in the floodplain and saving one-half inch of water isn’t necessarily going to help or hinder anyone, Rearick said. “We have to look at other flood mitigation measures which we’re open to doing.”

Having separate ordinances for each municipality also is a problem to Meeder, as the lack of cohesion creates difficulties between municipalities that may often struggle to stay on the same page.

“The real need, the real improvement is going to be a statewide revamp of the floodplain management. Right now its set in standards at the state and federal level then its given to each municipality to administer,” Meeder said. “So there’s no cohesion, and there’s a whole bunch of agencies that are involved in it. You have the (Department of Environmental Protection), you have FEMA, you have the (Department of Conservation and Natural Resources). All these different entities, and it’s really hard to navigate what’s where.”

This sometimes leads to disputes between municipalities that struggle to find common ground.

“Zelienople did one thing. Harmony took the zero development in floodplain stance. Jackson did another,” Meeder said. “We can hit each other with a stone. There needs to be a consolidated approach.”

Harmony also has an issue with the state. It has mandated that Zelienople fill in two reservoirs, which Harmony believes will exacerbate the problem.

“We at Preserving Harmony have been in touch with almost all the agencies, (but) it’s just a wide group of people and there’s no one with a final administrative say,” Meeder said. “It’s a complex issue so it’s not getting any attention.”

This lack of unity, Meeder said, makes it difficult to find a solution.