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Kris
June 19th, 2004, 11:45 PM
June 20, 2004

For the Price of a Dam, Saving the Lakes

By JESSICA BRUDER

MONROE TOWNSHIP

ON a recent Sunday afternoon, 94-year-old Charles Yust was sitting beneath a willow tree on the banks of Sunset Lake here, baiting fishhooks and casting lines with four of his great-grandchildren. Waiting for a nibble, he counseled patience.

"Each weekend, we've been catching bass, and they're a good size," Mr. Yust, who was seated on a bench behind his grandson's house, said as he gestured out across the lake.

Just past the clumps of yellow-flowered lily pads, his closest competitor, a blue heron, stood on spindly legs and eyed the water eagerly for fish. Nearby, three generations of Mr. Yust's family had gathered around the dock to enjoy a few hours by the waterside.

But change is looming. Sunset Lake and its neighbor, Upper Victory Lake - the center of Monroe Township's thriving waterfront community for decades - are the focus of a growing struggle that began earlier this year when the state Department of Environmental Protection issued an ultimatum to the lakes' owner: fix two aging dams, or drain both lakes in September. The repair bill has been estimated at more than $200,000. And since the lakes are owned by a single family, waterfront residents in Monroe have little say in their fate.

Nor is their predicament unique. Many of the nearly 1,600 dams in the state date to the early 1900's and are in need of costly repairs. Over the last year, 11 lakes were drained when their owners proved unable or unwilling to fix the dams, and environmental officials say that in the next year 10 more will have to go. Owners who cannot or will not repair them are referred to the state attorney general's office and informed that if they fail to comply with state standards, the dams will be decommissioned. Forty such cases are pending.

So, when Monroe residents look out across the water, they imagine a gaping marsh where the lakes now lap gently against the shore.

"You would go out to your dock and there would just be barren ground there," warned Ed Knorr, president of the Green Action Alliance, a Gloucester County environmental organization that opposes draining the lakes. "This area has been built around the lakes, so if you take away the lakes, you're killing the community there."

Dee DeAngelis, who is married to Mr. Yust's grandson Mike and has lived beside Sunset Lake for eight years, was even more blunt. "It would be a mud hole, an infested mosquito haven," Ms. DeAngelis said. "The stench and smell, I think, would be horrific. And the depreciation on the homes would be unbelievable."

For now, the future of the lakes is in the hands of Teresa Lehman, 35, of Williamstown, who inherited them two weeks ago when her 74-year-old father, Edmund Lehman, died.

Paradise Lost in the Pinelands

Mr. Lehman, who had a long history of heart problems, bought the lakes for $1 apiece in 1978 and dreamed of managing a piece of Pinelands paradise. But as the years went by, he recalled several days before he died, the ambitious endeavor went stale.

"I had great hopes," he said. "I thought I could have a fishery there."

He stocked the lake with bluegills, pike, perch and bass. He trucked in sand to build a beach and hired a lifeguard, charging visitors $1 a day to swim. But he said that people resented paying his fees and that, on one occasion, after a visitor stepped on a stray piece of broken glass, he faced a lawsuit. After two heart attacks in 1986, he said, the whole endeavor became too much and he shut the beach down.

After that, Monroe Township residents say, the lakes' infrastructure fell into disrepair. Trees and bushes sank their roots into the earthen embankments that hold the dams. In places, the water grew choked with lily pads. Yet a healthy ecosystem had already taken hold, supporting fish, turtles, beavers, otters, freshwater clams and even the occasional visit by a bald eagle.

Officials at the state environmental agency say they sent notices to Mr. Lehman throughout the 1990's, telling him to inspect and repair his dams, but without results. This year, Mr. Lehman's case was referred to the attorney general's office, which sent him a letter with new deadlines. Mr. Lehman was given a choice: submit plans to repair both dams by June 1 or prepare to breach the dams and begin draining the lakes on Sept. 15.

But, between his failing health and the expense of drafting the plans, which Mr. Lehman said would have cost him $40,000, nothing happened.

"I don't have that kind of money," Mr. Lehman explained, contending that he had already poured $60,000 to $80,000 into the lakes over nearly three decades.

As the deadline passed, word spread across Monroe that Sunset Lake and Upper Victory Lake were in trouble. The news came as a surprise to local residents - with ranch homes and split-levels ranging in value from $85,000 to $125,000 - who are fighting to save both the lakes and their lifestyle.

Mr. and Mrs. DeAngelis own one of the nearly 50 homes nestled along the waterfront, and they have taken the lead in mobilizing Monroe Township. They started a Web site, www.saveourlakes.com, and have collected 300 signatures on a petition that they plan to submit to Governor McGreevey; Bradley M. Campbell, the state commissioner of environmental protection; and other state officials. They have also gathered 120 local families to start the Upper Victory Lakes Association. In their front yard, a large sign reads: "We need more of you!!" A box below it is stuffed with leaflets about joining the nascent group, which they hope will be able to buy the lakes from Ms. Lehman and repair the dams.

According to Michael Gabbianelli, the mayor of Monroe, the township is prepared to support a homeowners' association, and will co-sign applications for grants and loans to cover the cost of repairing the dams. So, it all comes down to the title deed and whether Ms. Lehman will sell the 105 acres that comprise both Sunset and Upper Victory Lake at a price that residents can afford.

Lakes Come at a Cost

Mayor Gabbianelli was one of several town officials who met with Ms. Lehman the day after her father died. Though she is still weighing her options, he said, Ms. Lehman expects to set a price for the lakes of more than $200,000. "She said she heard there were 215 people on the petition, so she wanted about a thousand apiece," he recalled. Ms. Lehman did not return several calls seeking comment.

"We have to move in the right direction," Mayor Gabbianelli said. "The last thing we want is to see the lake drained. But it's her decision. Right now the numbers are high. I don't know if they're going to come to terms."

He explained that as a 25-year veteran of the local police force, he loved the community as much as anyone else and could not imagine losing the lakes. Trying to sound optimistic, he said, "Hopefully, when reality hits, when she realizes what her responsibilities are in terms of the maintenance of the lakes and dams, they'll be able to get together."

Monroe is not alone in its water woes. In recent years, the Department of Environmental Protection has been tightening enforcement of dam safety laws, widening its net to catch smaller dam owners who have flouted regulations for decades. This stricter scrutiny follows the flash floods that ravaged northwestern and central New Jersey after torrential rainstorms in 1999 and 2000, when 7 dams burst and 47 others were damaged. In 2000 alone, the damage exceeded $100 million.

"The problem is, we have concentrated on the major dams," John H. Moyle, chief of the dam safety section of the department, said in 2000. "We've not really aggressively enforced that inspections be done in the lower category dams. I think maybe now we will."

New Jersey's nearly 1,600 dams fall into three categories. A total of 185 are described as "high hazard" dams, grouped together because, if any of them failed, lives would probably be lost. In another category are 371 dams termed "significant hazard," where failure could lead to property damage. The rest of the dams are considered "low hazard," posing little risk to lives or property.

Before 2000, only dams considered a high hazard were subject to routine inspection by the state. Owners of those presenting a significant hazard were expected to hire engineers and conduct their own inspections every two years, with little state supervision. Many private owners either ignored the state's mandate or were unaware of their responsibilities. According to current figures, 314 of the 371 dams considered a significant hazard now require repair.

Dams Are Aging

Age has taken its toll on the state's dams, rusting their pipes and eroding the concrete spillways that act as intake mechanisms. Fixing a single dam can cost from tens of thousands of dollars to several million dollars, said Joseph Orlins, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rowan University.

"Many of these dams were built before development happened," Mr. Orlins explained.

In the early 1900's, when most of the dams were built, the surrounding areas were often wooded, allowing more water to be absorbed into the ground after heavy rainfalls. Now, with houses and strip malls crowding the landscape, the stress on even the smallest of dams has increased.

"If a dam was designed properly and could withstand the requisite pressure many years ago, today the dam would be considered undersized," Mr. Orlins said.

In essence, though times have changed, most dams have not. To address the backlog, the state set aside $95 million last November to finance loans for dam repair. The loans, offered at 2 percent interest with a 20-year term, are available to local governments and to private dam owners who can persuade municipal authorities to co-sign their loan applications.

"There are literally hundreds of dams across the state that are in need of repair," Mr. Campbell said. "Until last year there was really no finances available for those repairs and the repairs were often beyond the resources of a single owner or often a single municipality. Now that that financing is in place, we will have an easier time enforcing the requirements of the dam safety act without taking away local lakes that have become an important amenity to local communities."

But not all dam owners are prepared to assume the debt. Despite the lure of a loan program, they can still choose to let their lakes languish.

"When the dams are owned by one party, the people who own houses that front on the lake get the benefit of the lake, so it's a sticky situation," Mr. Orlins concluded. "It's a problem throughout South Jersey and the rest of the state."

"Sticky" is one word Waterford locals might use to describe the current state of Atco Lake. "Swamplike" and "disgusting" are two more.

The lake, which looks more like a bog, borders the White Horse Pike in Camden County. The Department of Environmental Protection drained it earlier this year after the owner of the lake - originally former state Senator Joseph Maressa, and now Sharon Ettore, the wife of Mr. Maressa's former brother-in-law - refused to make dam repairs.

"I have a diner locally, and people stop in and ask, 'What's going on with that?' " said Mayor Lorie Toussaint of Waterford, who has grown accustomed to the bewilderment of travelers who gape at the bog while passing through. "Right now some of the property owners are trying to sell their land and trying to encourage the county to purchase the lake as well. I just think it's unfair that the communities were left that way."

Barbara Palmer, a lakefront resident for two and a half years, agrees with the mayor.

"After 5 o'clock, you can't go out in the backyard because the mosquito population is incredible," said Ms. Palmer, who added that although the dam had been breached, about two feet of water remained in some areas, breeding bugs and stifling local wildlife. "The turtles have been dying on the roads because there's no place for them."

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, says his organization stands behind the residents of Waterford.

"We tend not to support the concept of draining lakes," Mr. Tittel said. "There's wetlands and other things those lakes are providing water for. Some owners find that it's cheaper to breach the dam and drain the lake than fix it. We think the owners should be taken to court and fix an unsafe dam rather than drain a lake and impact property owners as well as the environment."

David and Patricia Wilcox, who live in Waterford, have started a group called Friends of Atco Lake. With the help of neighbors, they are campaigning to restore the lake and get rid of the eyesore. Recently, they contacted the Mr. and Ms. DeAngelis in Monroe Township to pool resources and ideas.

These days the DeAngelis family has pictures of Atco Lake - before and after - posted on their front lawn to warn neighbors of the coming danger. With Sunset and Upper Victory Lakes scheduled to be drained in September, they hope that the message will be strong and clear, rather than too little, too late.

"They don't want their lakes to look like ours," Ms. Wilcox said, "and we're fighting like hell to get our lakes to look like theirs."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company