Managing dams can be a struggle for homeowner associations

hduncan@macon.comFebruary 18, 2013 

Donald and Mary Graves have enjoyed living on Island Boulevard at Leisure Lake in Houston County. He catches catfish and bream from his private dock, and she sips her coffee overlooking the rippling water. The ducks knock on the window with their beaks.

But Island Boulevard isn’t on an island. It’s on the dam that holds back an upper lake from a lower one, and the Georgia Safe Dams Program says the street’s residents could die if the dam fails.

That didn’t happen in 1994 when the upper lake overtopped the entire dam -- and Island Boulevard -- during Tropical Storm Alberto. Although residents must pay flood insurance, “I never thought about the fact that we live on a dam,” Mary Graves said. “We live on a street.”

The waterfront lifestyle attracts many homeowners and retirees like the Graveses, and lakeside lots and houses usually command higher prices. Homeowners may even get the perk of owning part of the lake -- and its dam -- through a neighborhood association, as at Leisure Lake.

But is that a perk?

For the 70 percent of high-hazard dams -- dams that could kill someone if they fail -- that are privately owned, the cost and liability for maintenance and repairs fall to the owner, said Tom Woosley, manager of Georgia’s Safe Dams Program. Fixing dams with significant problems can cost millions of dollars.

Statewide, dams owned by homeowners associations tend to have more problems, Woosley said, because the associations have continually rotating membership and often don’t understand the responsibilities of dam ownership. Individual members may disagree on whether they should have to pay for repairs -- and how much.

“The developer says to the association, ‘I’m giving you all this common property, including the playground and the dam,’ and they think, ‘Great!’ ” Woosley explained. “Then we show up and they say, ‘What?!’ ”

In Middle Georgia, both Leisure Lake and Lake Wildwood in Bibb County are high-hazard dams owned by homeowners associations. At least two more lakes owned by homeowners associations are on a state list of dams to be studied because they might be high-hazard: Kings Crossing Dam in Houston and a dam in the Rivoli Lakes subdivision in Bibb.

The state considers the Leisure Lake dam to be in “fair” condition, meaning it has some minor problems that need monitoring. Lake Wildwood’s dam condition has been labeled as “poor.” Because the other two haven’t been classified as high-hazard so far, the state doesn’t inspect them at all.

The Lake Wildwood dam needs expensive improvements to its spillway, Woosley said, adding that the association has known about this for many years but never put aside any money to pay for it.

Safe Dams records show Lake Wildwood residents have written letters in the past five years expressing fear that the association’s board would “saddle the residents with higher dues for no good reason” in the name of the dam, or asking who would be responsible for the dam if the association dissolved itself. (The answer was that if no one was responsible for the dam, the state would empty the lake and place a lien -- a legal claim -- on the property.)

But often members of neighborhood associations seem to know nothing about the dams.

Craig Anderson, the current board president of the Lake Wildwood neighborhood association, said he had no idea the state considered the lake’s dam to be poor. “I can’t imagine the dam ever going,” said Anderson, who remembers watching 6 feet of water flow like a river over the dam’s 150-foot spillway during Alberto in 1994.

He said the only reports he remembers were that state inspectors had found the dam OK.

But he acknowledged that the association has suffered in the past from a lack of institutional memory because its membership changes so often. Now the association has a management company running operations and a permanent lawyer, providing more stability in management, he said.

If the dam is truly in poor shape, he said, “Obviously we need to be responsible and take care of it.”

Better informed

Several Leisure Lake residents who live on its dam also said their neighborhood association doesn’t tell them the results when the dam is inspected.

Although they aren’t particularly worried, “We feel like they should keep us informed about the dam’s condition,” Mary Graves said.

In cases where private owners won’t spend money to make a dam safe, it leaves state and local governments with a tough decision: Improve private property using taxpayer money? Or risk the dam harming people and infrastructure downstream?

If a privately owned dam is about to fail, the state can step in and take emergency measures to fix the problem or eliminate the danger. However, Woosley said that has happened only four or five times in about 20 years, all for high-hazard dams in the mountains or the Atlanta area.

During Tropical Storm Alberto, two of the biggest dams to fail in Middle Georgia were the Houston Lake and Leisure Lake dams. Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had recommended in 1980 that Houston Lake, then private, be drained immediately and repaired, the state did not intervene.

It took about four years to rebuild and restore the lakes, although each found very different solutions.

Houston County agreed to take ownership of Houston Lake, which made state and federal funds available for restoration. But in exchange, the lake became open for public recreation. It is now considered to be in “satisfactory” condition by the state, the best possible rating.

Leisure Lake dam was owned by developer Charlie McGlamry at the time, and he refused to foot the bill for replacing it. Residents opted not to take public funds so they could keep the lake private, dipping into their own pockets in exchange for the deed to the dams.

With ownership of the dam, the association also accepted all future responsibility for dam maintenance. In practice, this means that volunteer residents are operating the gates at the lower dam based on weather reports.

That job falls mostly to David Selman, who lives on Island Boulevard. The upper lake has no gates. Selman, who is retired, said the wooden lower gates are easy to raise but require the use of a tamper like a sledgehammer to lower them again.

And private owners and local government continue to negotiate the pitfalls of maintaining the lake.

Selman, who is president of the association of homeowners that live on the dam, said residents have been meeting with Warner Robins officials because they are concerned about the lower lake being silted up with dirt from city stormwater pipes. That makes the lake shallower and able to hold less water before flooding during heavy rains.

“The city says this is a private lake and they have no authority to work on it,” Selman said. “At the same time, they feel free to run their storm drains into a private lake.”

To contact Telegraph writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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