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Public Engagement Gets Your "Foot in the Door" for Footing Drain Disconnection

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Residents of the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan have experienced periodic basement backup problems dating back to 1968. After a significant rain event in 1998, Ann Arbor created a task force to develop a plan to help prevent future basement backups and sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs). The taskforce worked with an engineering consultant to understand the causes of the problems and develop alternative solutions.

The consulting team found that the capacity problems observed in many of the sanitary sewers wereprimarily the result of stormwater generated by foundation footing drains located around residential structures. Community values—such as concern for environmental impacts on natural features and receiving waters—drove the analysis of alternative solutions. Footing drain disconnection (FDD)from the sanitary sewers was selected for citywide application.

The FDD Program was incorporated into an administrative consent order (ACO) that the city of Ann Arbor signed to address their SSO discharges with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). The program was undertaken in a modular fashion, working in the areas most frequently affected by basement backups and SSOs. This solution generally requires construction of a sump pump system in the basements where the FDD is performed.

Gaining and maintaining public acceptance of this FDD Program—where most of the construction is on private property and in residential basements—presents many challenges and requires a strong, focused public engagement strategy.

Specific challenges to public acceptance that are encountered when working on private property include:

Lack of knowledge on the part of the public relative to sewer and plumbing systems


Homeowners' reluctance to working with contractors due to past bad experiences


Working in homes where the current homeowners had not experienced basement backups


Backup sump pump systems for use during power outages could not be funded by the program (an added owner expense)


Restoration of finished basements and grass and landscaping faced varying expectations


Enforcement of FDD ordinance for non-compliant property owners


The challenges faced by the FDD Program are addressed by a construction management team consisting of city staff, an engineering consultant, and a public engagement specialist. The visibility and accessibility of these project staff has been very important throughout the project. In addition, a citizen advisory committee meets with program staff every 6 weeks to provide review program progress and to provide input into the changing communication needs of the program as different conditions and situations encountered.

For individual property owners, the FDD Program follows a series of steps, and their individual needs and expectations must be considered. Different public engagement approaches are included throughout the FDD process to help bring homeowners into the program, and keep them informed about their role. Engagement approaches have included:

Individually delivered homeowner information packets


Small neighborhood meetings and individual homeowner meetings


Focused program Web site


FDD video available on local television, as a DVD, or online


Newsletters, both as individual mailings, and enclosed with water bills


Articles in local newspapers and news magazines


Online surveys and return-postcard surveys


The overall public engagement approach will be presented as part of this paper, and the successesand limitations of each method will be discussed. A key to success has been the use of a variety of communication modes that fit the individual homeowner needs, as one size does not fit all. Most effective has been small group and one-on-one meetings, allowing each individual to learn aboutthe program at their own pace and focus on the issues that are most important to them. This paperalso includes statistics from the program, including the costs of public engagement approaches compared to the overall program costs, the level of satisfaction with the program, and steps taken to modify the message for different audiences.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2006-01-01

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