By Carson Gerber For the Pharos-Tribune
---- — PERU — Miami County Commissioner Larry West said he was shocked last month when he received a letter from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources saying he owned a portion of a deteriorating dam built near his house and he needed to pay to fix it.
West wasn’t alone. About 20 homeowners in the Hidden Hills housing addition just north of Peru received the same letter.
The addition has six dams. The oldest was built more than 20 years ago. West said the dams, installed before the housing edition was put in, were built to turn the natural gullies in the area into man-made lakes.
The letter says the dams were never permitted or inspected by the DNR and did not receive pre-construction approval. After an initial inspection, officials said, the dams need maintenance and the owners of the dams have to pay for it.
“The initial reaction was, ‘Oh my gosh, my property isn’t going to be worth anything of its original value,’” West said last week. “This is of terrific concern to the property owners.”
It’s also a major concern for the county, which maintains roads that run over four of the dams. West said the commissioners’ attorney and county engineer are currently examining the county’s responsibility in maintaining the dams.
Phil Bloom, communications director for the DNR, said the non-permitted dams came to the department’s attention when DNR officials were in Peru touring a floodplain site this year. He said just from a brief visual inspection, officials determined the dams had not been built properly and needed repairs.
Bloom said he didn’t know the specific repairs needed on the dams, but noted all six are considered high hazard. That means if the dams break, they could pose a serious threat to property owners downstream.
It also means property owners must hire an engineer every two years to do a full inspection.
Now, landowners and county officials are scrambling to figure out what to do. Whatever path they choose will come with a hefty price tag.
“The property owners can’t afford the kinds of costs that are going to be involved with all this,” West said, noting there’s no official estimate on how much the project will cost.
Property owners met last week to discuss their options, which include lowering the height of the dams so they no longer fall under DNR regulations. Owners could also just remove the dams and the lakes completely, but West said that isn’t a popular choice.
“None of the residents want to see the dams removed,” he said.
The only viable option, West said, is to pay to fix them. To do that, he said property owners are considering forming a state conservancy district — a vehicle by which landowners can organize a special taxing district to solve problems related to water management.
West said the district could implement a new property tax on district members to help pay for dam maintenance.
Landowners are currently looking at hiring an engineer to do an in-depth inspection and report on the dams. West said the report will be sent to the DNR, and officials will come up with a plan for which maintenance issues get addressed first.
County officials and landowners will meet again next month to further discuss their options. West said the DNR hasn’t set a timetable on when repairs need to be finished.
But, Bloom said, the sooner property owners start repairs, the better.
“Not only for the landowners,” he said, “but for all those things downstream that could be damaged if the dams were to fail.”