Sinking Feeling in harmony
HARMONY — As he ducked to cross The Center of Harmony's dirt floor basement beneath him, business bustling just above his head, Josh Meeder pointed to a hole in the ground.
Inside the hole rests a stormwater pipe. Water from the south side of the borough starting at Interstate 79 and Evans City Road runs through the pipe, with another entry point on Mercer Street directly in front of the building.
When the nearby Connoquenessing Creek rises, the pipe backs up, flooding not only Meeder's building, but also streets and businesses throughout the borough.
“My basement floods every time it rains if it's over seven feet,” he said of the creek.
Even a few inches of rain bring water to the front door of the building, which Meeder has owned for nearly eight years. For the first six years, water rarely, if ever, came close.
May's flood, however, saw Meeder working for nearly 12 hours, running water pumps from Mercer Street and redirecting it into the backyard to keep damage to a minimum. The overall damage to the building's foundation is unknown, leaving Meeder to question what can be done.
“The flooding has been excessive in the last two years,” he said. “It's been an extreme frustration.”
Although slow moving, the borough is working to reroute the pipe around his building, Meeder said, and increase its capacity. It's a small feat, but something Mayor Cathy Rape said shows progress.
“Just getting water out of somebody's basement, that's a big thing,” she said.
Despite work on the immediate issue, Meeder still sees a bigger problem in the area. Development of the floodplain along the creek has created potentially irreversible issues, he said, and stormwater management plans don't address the overall impact that development is having on the watershed.
“We're not against development,” Meeder said. “But it needs to be done responsibly.”
Meeder grew up in the Harmony area, working for the borough while in high school, painting curbs and doing other odd jobs. He moved home several years ago and has worked to make the historic borough an attractive center of business and tourism.A few years ago, Meeder and other members of the Historic Harmony group voiced concern about development along the creek in Jackson Township. He said those efforts to stop development ultimately failed, and he thinks there is a correlation between construction and the increase in flooding in recent years.He said it serves as an example of why local management of stormwater plans and permitting doesn't work as well as the shortsighted nature of development rules and regulations. While a new development might meet all requirements, the process does not take into account the volume and briskness of development in the area.“If you've got 98 (developments) coming in, what is the aggregate of that impact?” he asked. “No one is looking at that aggregate effect.”The issues can also be pinned on a number of other entities.Meeder said with any development project, organizations such as the Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, PEMA, FEMA and state and county agencies all have a hand in the permitting and review process.None of them, however, are ultimately responsible for ensuring that a development's impact is as minimal as possible.“I know it's a complex issue, and there's a lot of tentacles into it, but someone needs to take a stand, and I believe the leadership needs to come at either the county or the state level,” he said. This also includes more collaboration among municipalities to examine how development in one area can affect another. “When it's something that crosses jurisdiction like watershed, we need a more centralized, more thoughtful plan,” he said. “Watershed affects everyone.”Officials from the Army Corps of Engineers and Jackson Township could not be reached for comment.
Meeder said he wants to see a moratorium on floodplain development in the county “until we get a handle on it.”He also wants to see the stormwater management process re-evaluated, with adjustments made to capacity and runoff requirements. The resulting plans should consider the aggregate impact, and not be singularly focused on the individual municipalities themselves. The county or state should oversee this process, he added.“Until either the county or the state steps in, we will not make progress,” he said.As for progress, he and other community members worry that the work that has been done to not only preserve the borough's history, but also make it a modern tourism destination, may be all for naught.Rodney Gasch, president of Historic Harmony, said no artifacts in the Harmony Museum have been damaged as a result of flooding, although items have been moved out of the basement for safety.The organization owns nine historic properties in the borough, which is a National Historic Landmark District. This includes seven homes, which in addition to the town square, are pillars of the past in the borough.“We not only have to preserve the artifacts but the town itself,” Gasch said.Meeder said the flooding also affects the future of the borough. The Center of Harmony contains more than 20 small businesses, which bring money to the borough. That's in addition to other borough businesses that are faced with similar issues each time rain falls.It's disheartening, Meeder said, given the amount of time and energy he and others have invested in the community they love.“I can't afford to have another flood like this,” he said.