Gotha homeowners sue Orange County, FDOT over flooding

Article Courtesy of  The Orlando Sentinel

By Stephen Hudak

Published January 6, 2021


Frustrated by government inaction, two families in Gotha who have endured three years of severe flooding around their homes want a court’s help to permanently fix the problem.

“We tried to work it out with the county,” said Paul DeHart, one of the plaintiffs who have sued Orange County.

He and wife Stacey bought their $850,000 home near Lake Nally in 2017 and now hold their breath whenever it rains.

The couple and neighbors Juan and Yumeris “Mery” Fernandez, who were forced to abandon their flooded home in 2019, lay blame on county government in separate lawsuits filed last week by Orlando attorney J. Christy Wilson, who did not return phone messages for comment. The lawsuits also name as co-defendants the Central Florida Expressway Authority, the state Department of Transportation and the Braemar/Gotha Homeowners Association.

The properties in west Orange County near where the Florida Turnpike meets S.R. 408 sit in the Gotha drainage basin, which historically had “high water events,” but usually recovered quickly.

A home is flooded on Lake Nally Woods Drive in Gotha.

Heavy rains in the fall of 2019 wrecked the Fernandez’s home and forced worried neighbors to seek answers.

Lake Nally isn’t connected to any natural streams or other passages to help move water when the lake reaches capacity. The lake’s level relies on evaporation or groundwater seepage.

At a virtual meeting in September, engineering experts estimated a fix would cost between $5 million and $9 million.

“I’m not sure any of the solutions are easy,” Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said, noting costs and regulatory rules.

The lawsuits seek damages from all three public governments saying they created or aggravated the flooding issues.

The filings allege the county’s construction of Morton Jones Road created a berm which has functioned like a dam and blocked the natural flow of water into Fischer Lake and diverted it to Lake Nally, contributing to more frequent overflows.

The lawsuits also allege that expansion of the Turnpike-State Road 408 interchange has caused lake levels to rise and turned the properties into wetlands because of “constant inundation.”

They also allege landscapers for neighboring Braemar, formerly known as Gotha /Estates, may be to blame as well.

“Instead of removing growth that is cut, landscaping companies retained [to cut trees and other vegetation] have routinely dumped the cut material into the lake illegally, filling the lake and further diminishing its storage capacity,” the lawsuits claim.

When trees and yard waste are dumped in the lake, it loses storage depth and holds less water.

While acknowledging the flooding problem — and commissioning a study to find a solution, county officials do not admit blame. State road-building agencies declined to comment on the lawsuits, citing policies against discussing pending litigation.

HOA officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

Nearby Nehrling Gardens, the historic Gotha home and land of pioneering horticulturist Henry Nehrling, has been on flood watch several times in the past three years as lake water spilled over its banks and snaked into the late scientist’s prized bamboo patch.

Nehrling planted the patch above the 100-year flood plain to keep it dry.

But water rose in 2019 to levels above those during the super-soaker hurricanes of Charley, Frances and Jeanne in 2004.

The lawsuits allege rain water containing fertilizer and other chemicals runs from higher-elevation Braemar yards onto the DeHart and Fernandez properties, constituting “a physical invasion and taking of property rights.” The subdivision has 53 homes.

The lawsuits ask for unspecified compensation for property damage, lawyer fees and costs.

Though Lake Nally and other nearby water bodies often rose during summer rainy seasons, the properties have never been identified as part of a flood zone. Dehart told county commissioners his property value was at risk through no fault of his own.

“No one wants to buy a house that has a history of flooding,” he said.