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Public Good, Property Rights Collide On Buckeye Lake Dam

Tom Borgerding
Buckeye Lake Dam, portion of west bank

State and local emergency leaders will spend the next days and weeks refining evacuation procedures at Buckeye Lake after this weekend's drill.

Residents are coping with lower levels as the state rebuilds the lake's ailing dam.

In a March report, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blames private construction on the dam as the number one reason Buckeye Lake Dam is now at risk of failure.  The collision of  public good and private property rights has compromised the dam.

The Army Corps calls them "encroachments by private interests." It's a fancy term for boat docks, patios, foundation walls, and 370 homes built into the backside of the 4 mile long earthen dam. Licking County Planning Director, Gerald Newton, says it's a huge problem.  

"The dam was never designed to actually withhold water and then have development on it. It was designed in a marsh, in the swamp to be a feeder for commerce for the canal that carried water across the state," says Newton.

Ohio's canal system is long gone, but private development began about a century ago when people built small 'fishing shacks' on the dam. Doug and Linda Sweazy's family has owned lakeside property (away from the dam) for 70 years. He says at first only small summer homes sprouted on the dam.

"But more and more are fulltime year-round homes. Lot of retired people, a lot of second homes," says Doug Sweazy.

Now, 370 homes, some two and three stories high, sit on the dam.

So if the dam was not designed for houses, how did they get there?

Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Jim Zehringer says the state did not authorize  new construction.

"Well, ODNR isn't in charge of building on dams. So it wouldn't come from ODNR," says Zehringer.

The state considers the dam to have two parts: a front and a back. The state prohibited construction on the side of the dam that faces the water. But starting in the mid-1890s, allowed sale of some property on the back side of the dam.

"…1894 I think is when they started selling deeds to this land so you have a private property owner that wants to do something to his property and I think it created a very unique situation," says Zehringer.

Decades later, in 1960, the state sold more of its "surplus property," mostly on the north bank of Buckeye Lake Dam. But no agency monitored construction for three more decades. Kevin Clouse serves as Walnut Township's Zoning Inspector.

"The very first zoning as far as the resolution which is a zoning code, we call it the zoning resolution  is in October of '92 is when it was adopted," says Clouse.

Clouse says the 1992 township zoning code requires building permits for any type of construction on the dam.

"…anyone who is doing construction activities involving their home, garage, outbuildings or even businesses that are constructing or expanding needs to come to the township for a permit application to do the building,"

So the building continued - albeit with permits. That's despite studies since 1978 that raised concerns about the dam's integrity.

A review of township zoning permit logs show 22 building permits were issued for dam properties in the last two years. The permits include approval for two new homes that were built in 2013.

Now, the state has stopped new dam construction permits. And zoning inspector Clouse says it could be awhile before any new permits are issued for the backside of the dam.  

"If you're moving one shovelful of dirt that I know about I'm going to run it by the D-N-R folks because it's too risky to do anything on the dam right now," says Clouse.

The Corps of Engineers recommends the state buy back private property on the dam when it becomes available.  In the meantime the state expects to spend up to $150 million to build a new dam to hold back  Buckeye Lake.