Watchdog: Miscommunication leads to slow response to culvert debris

How 311 calls were classified causes confusion, but 'big stuff' under city street removed

  • Branches and tree limbs have blocked this culvert.
Branches and tree limbs have blocked this culvert. (Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore…)
May 14, 2011|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

The problem: Branches and tree limbs clog a culvert under a Southwest Baltimore street.

The back story: Pat Shiflett is a good steward of Herbert's Run.

Several years ago, a culvert was constructed under Wilmington Avenue just south of Wilkens Avenue to permit water to flow to Maiden Choice Run, into Gwynns Falls and to Baltimore's harbor.

She said it usually is "just a trickle," although heavy rains can turn it into a torrent.

"It would lift slabs of cement out of the sidewalk," Shiflett said. "It doesn't even have to be heavy in Baltimore City," since the culvert collects plenty of water during downpours in the county.

Shiflett maintains shrubs along the border of her Morrell Park property, adjacent to the stream, to help prevent wayward pedestrians from toppling over boulders and into the water. And she promptly reported to 311 when the stream's flow was interrupted by a pile of large branches and tree limbs that washed its way down the stream and became lodged at the culvert.

"All behind this mess is accumulating debris," Shiflett said. "It's a manmade filter."

Shiflett called 311 when she first noticed the branches in the stream bed in January. She called again in February and a final time in April, after heavy storms sent the branches downstream, to their current location.

"They send somebody out, but it's nobody who can do [anything] or knows what to do," Shiflett said.

Luckily, she had saved her 311 confirmation numbers, and Watchdog was able to sort out some of the confusion.

City housing inspectors responded to Shiflett's first two calls, which were classified as "trash and/or weeds," since she suspected a neighbor had cut branches off a tree and let them fall into the water.

The final call appeared to result in miscommunication. The online record shows that Shiflett reported branches in the stream, blocking the underpass, but it was reported as a "storm inlet choke" instead.

After Watchdog called the city Department of Housing and Community Development, a division chief from the permits and code enforcement unit visited the site and observed weather-related damage to the tree, said agency spokeswoman Cheron Porter. The branches "were broken off but not cut," she said.

The original inspector did not request that the branches be removed because they were not causing a problem, Porter said.

Crews from the Department of Public Works went to the site and removed 90 percent of the debris, Shiflett said.

"They got a lot of the big stuff out," she said. The trash remained, but "it's more than I was able to accomplish since January," Shiflett added.

They were expected to complete the work by this Friday, Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher said.

If readers see similar problems at other streams or bodies of water, they should call 311 and report a blockage under a bridge over a stream, providing the name of the street, as well as the closest intersection, he said.

Natural events can cause such blockages. And in case anyone is considering it, leaving yard waste — or anything else — in a streambed or waterway is illegal.

"The important lesson is that citizens have to properly dispose of these materials," Kocher said.

Branches that are smaller than 4 inches in diameter and shorter than 3 feet long can be bundled and left out on city trash collection days. No more than five bags can be left at a time, and not all bags may be picked up at the same time.

Who can fix this: Art Shapiro, chief of maintenance division, Department of Public Works' Bureau of Water and Wastewater, 410-396-7870. City residents should call 311 to report problems.

Need help?

Is there something in your neighborhood that's not getting fixed? Tell us where the problem is and how long it's been there by emailing watchdog@baltsun.com or calling 410-332-6735.

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