Waterline breaks plague Cliff Rose neighborhood
City says claims for damages must prove ‘negligence’
In the middle of the night a few days after Christmas, residents of a quiet neighborhood in Cliff Rose had an unwelcome visitor: a surge of more than a quarter-million gallons of water rushing down their street.
At about 11 p.m. Dec. 29, 2018, water began spurting from a ruptured underground PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipe on Marvin Gardens Lane — one of the streets in the Cliff Rose subdivision that overlooks Highway 89 near Rosser Street.
“The water was just boiling up on our side of the street,” recalls resident Rita Wuehrmann, who was awoken by the sound. “The violence of it was just incredible.”
On the other side of the street, longtime Cliff Rose resident Bob Townsend had already heard the rushing water and had called 911.
The Prescott Fire Department responded first, followed by city water department workers.
In all, a water-loss report indicated that 275,000 gallons flowed out of the main waterline that night before crews were able to shut off the water, said Chris Wuehrmann, Rita’s husband.
The bulk of that water coursed toward the downhill side of the street — in the direction of the house owned by Townsend and his wife, Kathryn Ballard.
The couple, who had just finished a major house renovation, suffered “substantial damage” to their longtime home, according to a claim submitted to the City of Prescott on April 2.
“The sheer volume of water that invaded the subject property was monumental and the water invaded not only the yard surrounding the home … but the home itself …” the claim stated.
Townsend and Ballard are now living in a virtual construction zone, dealing with half-walls and unfinished floors.
After months of dealing with contractors and engineers, Townsend and Ballard say it will cost nearly $200,000 to fix the house they have called home since 1990.
Ballard, a longtime pediatrician in Prescott, noted that she recently retired from her medical practice.
“This isn’t how I thought I’d be spending my retirement,” she said.
Jeffrey Adams, attorney for Townsend and Ballard, said, “It has been a complete alteration of their daily lives, and they’re going to be dealing with this for a long time.”
The claim that Adams’ office submitted to the city lists a range of damages, including: erosion of landscaping; undermining of the driveway, sidewalk, and crawl space; saturation of the house’s flooring and contents; and damage to retaining walls.
At the Wuehrmann’s house, the damage was limited mostly to front-yard landscaping.
Because the damages were caused by a break in a city water main, the Wuehrmanns and Townsend and Ballard assumed that the City of Prescott would cover the costs.
So, the Wuehrmanns say they were shocked when their claim for about $1,100 was turned down.
A Jan. 21 letter from the Arizona Municipal Risk Retention Pool, of which the city is a member, stated: “Our investigation fails to reveal any negligence attributable to the City of Prescott. The city had no prior notice of any defective condition that led to the water main break.”
Townsend and Ballard have yet to hear back on their much larger claim, but the accompanying letter from Adams is not hopeful.
“While we expect that the city will argue that it has no liability to our clients, we believe that that argument will fail,” the letter states. It goes on to state that Townsend and Ballard are “clearly entitled to recover the full amount of money that will fairly and reasonably compensate them for the damage caused as a result of the city’s negligent and grossly negligent conduct.”
Both couples emphasize that a longstanding record of water breaks in the Marvin Gardens area — about eight instances over the past 10 years — should have been enough to forewarn the city that more breaks were likely to occur.
Prescott City Attorney Jon Paladini explained that any such claims for damages must prove city negligence.
Although he declined to speak specifically about the two cases, Paladini said a city denial likely would be based on “whether or not the city was at fault and acted unreasonably.”
He added: “Just because a waterline leaks or breaks doesn’t mean the city did anything wrong in its maintenance or scheduling. There has to be some fault.”
Waterlines are installed to the engineering standards of the time, Paladini said, and the city deals with a host of priorities when it budgets money for repairs or replacements.
“If there are multiple breaks in the line, it may mean the city may have to move up a capital project, but that would mean some other project would be bumped,” Paladini said.
Although Prescott Public Works Director Craig Dotseth agreed that a number of breaks have occurred in the Marvin Gardens area in recent years, he said similar breaks have happened all over Prescott.
Chris Wuehrmann maintains that the past work orders for replacement of sections of the Marvin Gardens water main tell the story.
“Obviously, there was knowledge of a defective condition,” he said, showing the multiple work orders for water main repairs in 2009, 2012, 2017, and 2019.