During the summer, an Oak Park water main ruptured, spilling tens of thousands of gallons of water, some leaking into nearby residents’ basements. Neighbors thought it was a no-brainer that the village should be held liable, but it seems that’s not the case.

The break happened the evening of Sunday, Aug. 28, at the intersection of Ridgeland and Division. Because of the large spillage, water worked its way into some seven basements nearby, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage.

Oak Parker Mike Reust said more than a foot of water and sewage pooled on the floor of his basement, and he had to spend about $5,000 to replace his furnace and sanitize the space. Reust claims that it took the village hours to get the water shut off, exacerbating the problem. The village disputes this.

Reust, 55, said he didn’t have the insurance rider to cover such an occurrence, and he believes that the village should be held responsible for damages to his and the neighbors’ homes.

“The village expects homeowners to pay out of their own pocket for an item that the village has control over essentially,” he said.

But Village Manager Tom Barwin said Oak Park has long had a law on the books that protects village hall from having to pay for damages to homes if a water main bursts. He labeled such an occurrence an act of nature and said it’s common for most municipalities to protect themselves from related lawsuits.

“I think to establish a new precedent would open a whole new area of costs and liabilities for the village, which ultimately the taxpayers across the village have to absorb,” he said. “And I think just now people are taxed and fee’d up to their eyeballs.”

The August rupture happened when corrosion in a pipe 6 feet below the street caused it to split, forming three large-diameter holes, according to Brian Jack, the water and sewer superintendent for the village. He estimated that water mains break about 20 times a year in Oak Park on average.

Jack disputed Reust’s claim that it took village crews two hours to shut off the water. According his records, the break first happened at about 5:10 p.m. that night, police were notified five minutes later, and valves were shut down about 5:30 p.m. Main breaks are a “freak occurrence,” Jack said, often difficult to foresee.

“It’s really hard to predict when these things are going to happen,” he said. “If people want to use their basements as storage or living space, the best thing to do is to put some kind of flood protection device in their homes.”

Village Trustee Adam Salzman — who lives in northeast Oak Park, but wasn’t affected by the water main — agrees with Reust that the village should take a closer look at its policies. He thinks Oak Park should ease its rules to give staffers the ability to help residents in situations similar to the one created on Aug. 28.

“I think it’s worth exploring whether or not we want to reword [the ordinance] or take it off the books,” Salzman said. “For a situation like what happened up there, it sort of leaves those residents in a bind.”

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