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Analysis: ODNR still retains tight grip on dam project

BUCKEYE LAKE – Lake area public officials, residents, businesses and property owners have a lot of complaints about how ODNR has handled the Buckeye Lake dam project.

But we can’t claim they haven’t been consistent on at least one issue – no meaningful public input or involvement.

That consistent theme continues in ODNR Director James Zehringer’s December 19 response to the December 1 letter to ODNR Senior Policy Adviser Mark Anthony from the the Dam Regulations Committee of the Buckeye Lake Region Corporation. That letter came out of a November 30 meeting of more than 100 dam-front property owners organized by the Dam Regulations Committee.

Buckeye Lake 2030 Executive Director Mike Fornataro reported, “One thing made very clear was that the majority of those in attendance do not want a redundant sidewalk in addition to the walking / biking/ access road that is part of the dam-top design. Eliminating the sidewalk will not hinder public access to the dam, as the sidewalk has been touted as a “local-access” amenity; meaning it is there primarily for the use of dam front residents. Eliminating the sidewalk will also save taxpayer money.”

The letter suggested using the funds for the sidewalk to widen the planned 12 foot-wide asphalt access path over the soil-mixed seepage barrier and buttress wall to 16 – 20 feet. “This would respect the privacy of the homeowners, while providing a better amenity for the Central Ohio visitors to Buckeye Lake, by creating better separation between walkers, joggers and bikers on the path,” the letter explained.

ODNR’s response, reprinted in its entirety here, is notable in two respects. The response came in less than three weeks and it actually addresses some of the specific points raised. Most letter writers to Zehringer either wait months for a response or get a generic response that fails to address any of the points raised.

His letter continues the fiction that ODNR has “communicated often with the affected stakeholders at Buckeye Lake – not just residents along he dam but across the region – to explain the project’s need, purpose, and timing and to hear their often competing views about our plans.”

He has been disingenuous on this point since he pledged in an August 13, 2014, letter to Buckeye Lake Dam stakeholders, to “make time to seek residents’ input and work through these issues with the community in an open and transparent process before any final decision are made.” Residents heard nothing about the Corps report until they noticed that the AMIL spillway gate wasn’t closed on March 1.

Readers are familiar with ODNR’s handpicked advisory council that met in private with ODNR-contractors, not ODNR staff. The infrequent meetings never featured much give and take on designs or construction practices. Members did get some advance notice on what was going to happen next. It’s been about a year since the group actually met in person.

That one-way information exchange characterized the community wide open houses that Zehringer touts in his latest letter. The one-on-one multiple station format precluded any significant input . Thanks to ODNR’s very successful information black-out campaign orchestrated by a PR firm, most residents just hustled from station to station, trying to find out what was going to happen next.

For example, questions about docks were brushed off for years by claiming the plans/designs weren’t complete. Only recently did residents find out that docks would have to be floating. Their instability is very unpopular and represents a safety risk to our many elderly residents.

There has been no discussion on how to mitigate their inherent instability. The decision was just announced.

So it is no surprise that Zehringer flatly rejected any changes to the new four-foot wide sidewalk or its location. Somehow this new sidewalk on the West Bank incorporates a handful of porch steps and appears to be closer to some homes than the claimed four-foot setback.

Zehringer also continues his “straw man” strategy. On the first page, he claims that there “have been pleas from representatives of your group that we…2) agree to relinquish a large portion of the dam embankment to the exclusive personal use of private property owners along the dam, despite the significant structural damage that decades of private encroachments on the dam led to in the first place.”

There was no request in the Buckeye Lake Region Corporation letter to “relinquish” any portion of the dam embankment for the exclusive use of private property owners. Furthermore, the “decades of private encroachments on the dam” were done with ODNR’s full knowledge and acquiescence. Zehringer’s tone makes it sound like dam-front property owners wrongly appropriated property from ODNR. In reality it was more of a commonsense exchange – encroachments in exchange for decades of embankment maintenance.

Zehringer did agree to meet with BLRC Chairman Ben Carpenter and members of the Executive Committee in a private meeting on January 22.

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