Steve Whitney stands outside his house on Brighton Avenue in Portland as a crew from TC Hafford Basement Systems begins work on his Portland home on May 3. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A house near Portland’s Deering Center neighborhood is sinking into the ground.

Steve Whitney noticed the signs when he moved in three years ago, but things have only worsened since. His mother owned the one-and-a-half-story ranch at 726 Brighton Ave., and Whitney moved back just before the pandemic to help his sister take care of her. He stayed in the basement, where he also operates his small business, which meant he had a front-row seat for the rapid changes.

Standing water after rainstorms where none had been before. Foundation cracks. Uneven floors. Outside, the signs were visible, too.

His mother has since died, but Whitney and his sister kept the house and have spent tens of thousands of dollars to level the structure, install a sump pump and make other improvements. This month, they invested $33,000 more to install 16 steel piers (stilts, essentially) at least 20 feet into the bedrock and add a French drain running the length of the front of the house.

The goal is to stabilize the foundation and divert water away, but Whitney wonders if he’s simply watching his money wash away too.

“It feels like it’s probably a stopgap, but what do you do,” he asked, rhetorically. “You have to do something.”

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The villain in Whitney’s horror story is Capisic Brook, a small waterway that runs almost directly underneath the house to a nearby pond, weakening the ground in the process. The larger problem is likely climate change. Two years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency concluded that the entire neighborhood would soon become a designated flood zone, a development that raised concerns among residents.

A crew from TC Hafford Basement Systems works around the foundation of Steve Whitney’s house in Portland last week. The home has been sinking into the ground, largely because of a small stream that runs directly underneath it. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Rising sea levels and erosion have increasingly plagued coastal properties, but the effects can be felt miles inland as well, particularly where moving water is present.

Whitney has been vocal about his problems with city officials, who have been stumped on exactly why his house is sinking, or what they can do to help.

Bill Boornazian, water resources manager for the city of Portland, said he’s visited Whitney’s property and has surveyed surrounding storm drains, culverts, and other infrastructure.

“So far, we haven’t seen evidence that any other properties are sinking, so we feel comfortable that it’s localized to that stream bed,” he said. “We don’t really have any other comparisons.”

None of Whitney’s neighbors has contacted the city, but Whitney believes the problems are not limited to his property. He doesn’t think other property owners are comfortable going public about something that would decrease the resale values of their homes, and he understands their reservations.

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But at some point, he said, things might be harder to ignore.

Ryan Gordon, a hydrogeologist with Maine Geological Survey, said there is no question that climate change has impacted neighborhoods across the state, and that’s likely to continue. Development has played a role as well.

“We have seen already and expect to see more high-frequency rainfall events,” he said. “So, when it comes to urban flooding and stormwater design, what we have now might not be adequate.”

CONDITIONS DETERIORATE

Whitney remembers when his mother bought the home in the early 1990s.

“I swear it had the driest, nicest basement then,” he said.

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Whitney was a contractor for decades, mostly in New York, and has an environmental engineering background. He has some knowledge of stormwater and soils.

So, when he noticed the house start to sink, he started to document things.

He and his sister also began spending money to fix the problem, first while their mother was alive and even more since she died.

First, a sump pump to remove water that would threaten to enter the basement anytime the brook underneath the house started to rise, which seemed more frequent.

Then the house was lifted off the foundation and leveled.

The efforts stopped water from coming into the basement but didn’t solve the larger problem.

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Water was still running and dislodging sediment with it.

At that point, Whitney started reaching out to city and state officials – anyone who might listen.

“I can’t be the only person this is happening to, and I feel like we’d be better off being proactive,” he explained.

Eventually, Boornazian and other staff members with the city started researching the property. When the house was built in the 1950s, the stream underneath was diverted during construction, likely by fill that was brought in before the foundation was dug.

“We can see that area where the stream used to be has lowered quite a bit,” he said. “One thing we’re trying to figure out first: If it’s sinking and soils are leaving, where are they going?

The likely answer is Capisic Pond. For years, the city has dealt with increased sediment in that body of water and has even dredged it.

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Whitney said if the water flowing underneath the house had somewhere else to go, that could alleviate the problem.

Boornazian said the city has been looking into the culverts and stormwater drains around the house to see if the city’s infrastructure has had a negative impact. So far, he said, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Gordon, the state hydrogeologist, is familiar with the property and has done some research on the area.

“This particular case of settling does seem localized to his house,” he said. “There are a row of houses, but that house was right on top of the stream.”

That said, Gordon said he wouldn’t be surprised if more urban drainage issues emerge in the future.

“Each one is going to be unique. I don’t think the whole neighborhood will sink, but they may have other issues,” he said.

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A former city engineer suggested two years ago – shortly after the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent letters to neighborhood residents about the likelihood that the area would soon be a flood zone – that homeowners should consider putting their structures on stilts, just as Whitney has done.

That was in addition to purchasing flood insurance, a requirement for any federal-backed mortgage loans, at a cost of several thousand dollars a year for some.

Water seeps into a hole being dug around the foundation at Steve Whitney’s house on Brighton Avenue on Wednesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A GROWING PROBLEM

When the work began last week on Whitney’s house, of course, it was raining and had been for several days.

Crews from the company he hired, TC Hafford Basement Systems of Wells, began by excavating around the foundation. They would then install a series of push piers, which are aptly named because they are pushed into the ground, using the weight of the house for counterweight, until they reach bedrock.

Mike Morin, sales manager with TC Hafford, said this type of project is not necessarily common but is becoming more routine.

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“As time goes by, it seems like we do more and more,” he said.

Morin said each property is different, and with houses that were built generations ago, what lies underneath them is often unknown.

“If people are building on soils that were substandard and not prepared to carry weight, there will be issues over time,” he said. “Mother Nature is relentless.”

Morin said he sees no reason why the push piers won’t be successful at Whitney’s house but acknowledged the high cost. The work does come with a 25-year warranty, he said, which is transferable if Whitney and his sister decide they want to sell the house.

Whitney still believes he’s not alone in his plight and said the recent flood zone designation should be a wake-up call for other residents. When FEMA designates an area as a flood zone, it means the agency expects a flood at least once every 100 years.

The homes in that particular zone are clustered on Alden Circle, Wayside Road, and the north side of Brighton Avenue, where Whitney lives.

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Some neighborhood residents told the Press Herald in 2021 that they have had concerns about flooding but haven’t experienced what Whitney has. Lois Winter, who lives on Alden Circle abutting Capisic Brook, said the sump pump in her basement has kept things dry, even during historic storms.

Neighbors declined to talk about Whitney’s concerns. Some did not return messages. Others said they didn’t have anything to add.

More recent construction – say, within the last quarter century – pays closer attention to the impact of stormwater runoff and where that water might go. But that wasn’t really on the radar in the mid-20th century, when so many homes were built in and around Deering Center and elsewhere.

Gordon said shifting flood maps are in part due to changing climate but also a function of better technology. It’s generally more present in low-lying coastal areas where the risk is assumed.

“But flooding is a concern everywhere in Maine, it’s not just a coastal phenomenon,” he said. “The thing with flood maps is that, for many years, we didn’t have the tools to track. It was all based on elevation. So, most maps in Maine are in need of revision.”

Boornazian said the city continues to work with Whitney to see whether any more can be done on its end.

“We did tell him – and other people can do this as well – that if there is a request for him to tie into a drainage pipe, that can be considered.”

Whitney said he plans to see how the pier installation works out before doing anything else. He doesn’t blame the city but hopes by speaking up, more people start thinking more about the water and the soils that lay unseen below the surface.

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