New report provides clues to origin of Gotha flooding problems

Final report expected in August

A new engineering report may have uncovered clues in the chaos surrounding flooding issues with land-locked lakes in one West Orange County community.

GOTHA, Fla. – A new engineering report may have uncovered clues in the chaos surrounding flooding issues with land-locked lakes in one West Orange County community.

Last year, News 6 detailed the record flooding in the Gotha area, specifically at Lake Fischer, Lake Nally, Lake Hugh, Mills Pond and Gotha Pond, as neighbors searched for answers as to what was causing the flooding.

For months, neighbors blamed housing development and the nearby Florida Turnpike for the flooding.

“A year later, we’re still waiting to move back into our home,” homeowner Mery Fernandez said.

Fernandez and her husband were forced to move out of their home on Lake Nally Woods Drive after water flooded their driveway, seeped into their garage and lingered in the first floor of their home.

“Our furniture has mold,” she said. “We even went through kitchen cabinets, the items have mold. The struggle was real in this house. You see the water approaching your dream home, your forever home, and you can’t stop it."

New paperwork shows plans for a consultant, hired by the Orange County Public Works Department, to collect data and investigate causes for repeated flooding problems in the Gotha neighborhood.

As a result, Orange County leaders commissioned a $200,000 study into matter in November.

That complete report is not expected to be released until August, however, News 6 obtained a draft of the first section of the report that was submitted to the county in April.

The primary focus on the section submitted to the county details previous studies on the area, the current drainage infrastructure, and other data collected.

David Hamstra with Pegasus Engineering co-authored the report, entitled Gotha Lakes Watershed Management Plan Update.

“From a development point of view, a lot has happened out there,” he said. “We’re trying to differentiate between mother nature’s influence versus to see if there was anything done on the outside that caused this to be a forced problem.”

Neighbors in the Gotha community, including David Boers who lives near Mills Pond and Gotha Pond, said they believe the report starts to point to the Turnpike Enterprise as a cause for their flooding.

“I think it identifies the biggest culprit,” Boers said. “The biggest takeaway of all of it: the engineers did identify there’s a lot of responsibility on the Turnpike’s end.”

“I can’t go there yet,” Hamstra replied when told about neighbors’ interpretations of his report. “Can’t do that right now.”

“I think it references some things that need to be looked into and explored,” neighbor Paul DeHart added. “It is just constantly on your mind. You have to think about it until it’s resolved.”

At one point, the report mentions repeated flooding problems at Mills Pond, and several previous studies looking into the issue:

“It appears that an effort was made by the Turnpike [Enterprise] to investigate the reported complaints associated with the documented high water levels within Mills Pond. However it does not appear that any corrective actions were taken.”

“We don’t know for sure whether the Turnpike has done anything that was documented,” Hamstra explained. “That’s one of the big things we’re looking into. There was a lot of good documentation provided by them. We need to quantify or confirm if things were actually done as alluded to in some of those reports. Those are some of the things we’re looking into post the draft report being issued.”

Emails from the Turnpike Enterprise obtained by News 6 show the Turnpike settled with a property owner near Mills Pond in 1996 for $50,500, after complaints of flooding.

The Turnpike Enterprise provided this statement in regards to the draft report:

"We cannot comment on a report we have not reviewed. As we have previously shared, our engineers have met with some of the Gotha residents who reached out to us about their concerns. We are always working with our partners, including Orange County and the St. Johns River Water Management District, regarding questions from nearby residents.

Turnpike projects always are designed to meet the criteria established by the Florida Department of Transportation and water management districts. Past projects located within this drainage basin included floodplain compensation and a design that did not increase roadway runoff to any adjacent roads, homes or developments."

The report also mentions the amount of residential growth in the Gotha area.

residents living along Lake Nally, as well as nearby Lake Fischer, Gotha Pond, and Mills Pond are sharing their stories of flooding in hopes county leaders will assist in the flooding problem.

“It is worth noting that a comparison of the 1997 and 2018 aerial images, illustrate that a significant amount of development has occurred within the past 30 years for areas surrounding the lakes within the study area,” the report said.

News 6 reached out to county leaders about the draft report and to address the area’s growth.

Commissioner Betsey VanderLey, who ordered the study, said in a statement to News 6:

“[I have] made the request to Orange County staff to ensure that any land-use applications within this region are wrapped into the ongoing study. This is to ensure that the County has a holistic and comprehensive understanding of the storm water status and impacts in this region... thus allowing better decisions as a result.”

In a ZOOM video call, Hamstra did leave open the possibility that the report, when completed, may not find anyone or any entity at fault for the flooding.

“I will tell you this is not an isolated case,” he said. “There are other lakes in West Orange County that have the same problem, which leads us to believe this is primarily rainfall driven. We had Hurricane Irma in September 2017, and back-to-back wet Spring seasons in 2018 and 2019. These lakes were never able to recover from hurricane seasons and wet seasons.”

Fernandez, Boers, DeHart and other neighbors have retained a lawyer to explore their options addressing last year’s record flooding.

“We knew something was off,” Fernandez said. “Having this report come out confirms we were not crazy that there was a source to the problem. There are responsible parties and we can come to solutions to fix the problem.”

A final version of the complete report, including formally addressing any causes of the flooding and proposed solutions, is expected in August.

About the Author:

It has been an absolute pleasure for Clay LePard living and working in Orlando since he joined News 6 in July 2017. Previously, Clay worked at WNEP TV in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he brought viewers along to witness everything from unprecedented access to the Tobyhanna Army Depot to an interview with convicted double-murderer Hugo Selenski.