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Quick dam resolution urged

NEWARK- The faster Buckeye Lake’s new dam is built, the better, said David Pierce of Weldon’s Ice Cream, who chimed in via cell phone during a Tuesday afternoon Licking County Commissioners meeting with ODNR spokesman John Wisse. “We simply need to fast track this whole thing,” Pierce said. “We’re in peril.”

Ohio Governor John Kasich announced March 19 that Buckeye Lake would remain at winter pool while the state spends up to $150 million to replace the lake’s 4.1 mile, 177-year old dam during the next five years.

Commissioner Tim Bubb said Tuesday’s meeting was mainly to receive an update from Wisse on the dam project’s progress, but word of the public meeting spread quickly and a meeting room at the Licking County Administration Building was filled to capacity. Wisse and the commissioners fielded questions from concerned Buckeye Lake residents and business owners.

Bubb said the commissioners would like to work with ODNR to ensure the dam replacement takes place as quickly as possible. “We’d like to see an accelerated design process,” he said. Wisse said the ODNR is focused upon natural resources, not economic development. However, he said ODNR is aware of the economic issues. “We’re talking about saving lives, here,” Wisse said.

Debbie Fisher, co-owner of Fisher’s Marina, said it’s also about saving her business. She said she had no time to prepare for the lake remaining at winter pool for five or six years while the dam is rebuilt. “ODNR has not given us any transparency whatsoever,” she said. Fisher said she didn’t want to see the same thing happen at Buckeye Lake that’s happened during a long dam replacement project in Hide-Away Hills, a community near the Hocking Hill region. She said Buckeye Lake State Park personnel have not been friendly toward her. “We’re not the bad people in this program,” Fisher said, adding that ODNR officials have not wanted to answer her questions. “It’s like we’ve done something wrong to them, and we haven’t. My emotions run very deep with this.”

“It’s ridiculous how you’ve handled my life,” said Ed Fisher, Fisher’s Marina co-owner, to Wisse.

Boat Boys owner Tim Figgins said he would’ve slashed his inventory had he known ODNR’s plan to rebuild the dam earlier. He said he was told nothing would be done to the dam without public input. “This was done without input,” Figgins said, fearing his Buckeye Lake shop will close. “My business may have survived if I had notification.”

Wisse said keeping the lake at winter pool is essential to prevent a breach until the dam can be repaired.

He said the lake is currently six inches above winter pool, and it has only reached true winter pool level once since 1993. “The corps report has forever changed the way the state runs the lake,” Wisse said. “It’s that serious.”

Wisse said raising the water level from winter pool is not a possibility. He said Army Corps of Engineers personnel “stood there wide-eyed on the west bank,” Wisse said. “Oh, my God.” He said corps personnel had never seen an earthen dam like Buckeye Lake’s. “They said, ‘This thing is incredible.’” Replacing it will be a very complex process.

Wisse said ODNR would expedite the request for qualifications process – searching for professional engineering services “to provide final design services, construction bidding documents, soil borings, surveying and construction administration” – but he predicted an engineering firm wouldn’t be hired until the end of this summer. And then, it may be another 12 to 15 months of design work before physical construction can begin. Physical construction of the new dam should take three to four years. “That’s on a fast track,” he said.

Licking Township Trustee Joe Hart said he appreciated the invitation to Tuesday’s meeting. He said it was the first time he’s been notified about a meeting relating to the dam. Hart said four years of construction seems too long. “Could we segment the construction – start on either end?”

“If one crew is working, four crews would be better,” Bubb added.

Buckeye Lake Village Council member Peggy Wells asked what effect dredging would have upon the whole lake level. And, how would the water level affect construction if heavy barges are needed?

“We’re not there yet,” Wisse said, adding that ODNR has no intention of placing heavy construction equipment on the dam. He said dredging begins next week and will continue on a regular basis.

Wells also asked if ODNR purchased the former Smitty’s restaurant by the Seller’s Point spillway. Wisse said it was purchased last year.

Sherry Pymer, who said she has experience in construction, said the State of Ohio constructs its own marinas. “To me, that’s a red flag, and so is property acquisition.” She was referring to two of the work requirements listed in the RFQ: “Experience with marina and dock planning, design and construction” and “potential property acquisition.” Pymer said she believed the new dam could be built in half the time if ODNR entered into a public/private partnership with contractors.

Bubb said some boat owners are left “high and dry,” and unable to remove their boats from moorings because the water level is so low. He asked if ODNR could assist these people. Wisse was clear that ODNR could not work with private property. “There has been no secrecy about the deterioration of the dam,” he said. Wisse said the dam has leaked in the past and people have ignored those signs. He reiterated that ODNR is not in a position to help private property owners.

Licking County Auditor Michael Smith said the extended winter pool will impact Buckeye Lake property values. “No one can guess how much,” he said. People will have to wait for a 2017 reappraisal; its results will be available in 2018.

Wisse said part of the problem is the dam no longer serves its intended purpose, which was to feed Ohio’s canal system. It wasn’t designed to support houses and tourism. Wisse said the lake should’ve been drained many years ago with the demise of the canal system.

Bubb said no one is asking ODNR to place anyone’s life at risk. Residents and business owners simply want it repaired as quickly as possible to reduce the project’s economic impact. He said the county would hold many more meetings regarding the dam. “This is the beginning of the process, not the end,” Bubb said.

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