In her 18 years in the residential real estate business, Liz Sullivan has weathered a few market fluctuations.
She has an up-close view of the latest one. It’s happening in her back yard.
Sullivan, a resident of Spring Lake in the Forest Acres community, is one of many homeowners whose property still bears the scars of October’s historic floods. Though her house escaped major damage, the lake it once faced is now a sea of green grass.
“Our entire back yard was ruined,” Sullivan said. “We probably had a two-inch layer of silt and debris. … When it dried, it looked like the desert.”
Sullivan and her neighbors are shareholders in the Spring Lake Company, a homeowners’ association formed in 1955 when the neighborhood was developed. Those shareholders pay dues that help operate and maintain Spring Lake and its dam, but prior to the flood, no mechanism existed to compel homeowners to pay those dues.
The nonprofit organization has applied for a Small Business Administration loan to help with repair costs. It also changed its bylaws to make paying annual fees mandatory, giving itself the power to attach liens to the property of noncompliant residents and guaranteeing collateral for the loan.
Other neighborhoods are looking for alternative ways to repair privately owned dams. Upper Rockyford Lake homeowners vote Tuesday on whether to create a special purpose tax district that would generate revenue that could either be spent on repairs or used as loan collateral. Residents of Cary Lake, Lower Rockyford Lake and Beaver Lake vote Aug. 23.
Each neighborhood submitted petitions requesting the votes.
Preliminary estimates forecast repairs at each dam will cost from $500,000 to $1 million. If approved, the special purpose districts would add up to $3,500 per tact to annual property tax bills, for possibly as long as three decades.
The cost of losing lakefront
The flood sent area property values into freefall. Sullivan – after seeing one nearby home, listed for $849,000 in 2014, recently sell for $400,000, - has a message for clients: “I would say, either be prepared to take a hit, or wait it out,” she said. “I’ve advised two clients to just simply wait it out.”
She’s taking her own advice. With a son off to college in the fall, Sullivan and her husband have considered downsizing from their 6,000-square-foot home, but, “there’s no way I would put my house on the market today,” she said. “Absolutely not.”
She’s confident, though, that the market – and the lake – will bounce back.
“We just need a little bit more time,” she said. “It doesn’t help having these lakes that look like mudpits right now, because it’s a glaring reminder. But once they fill back in, give people a little time to see the beautiful water again, and we’ll be right back where we were.”
Sullivan’s neighbor, Carla Damron, also now sees only grass where the lake she enjoyed kayaking on used to be. Damron, a retired social worker, has volunteered in harder-hit flood areas, and so is grateful that her home suffered only groundwater bubbling into a downstairs office.
Even so, the pluff mud now coating her yard can pose a challenge to fully enjoying her home.
“I want my lake back,” Damron said. “The ducks want us to get our lake back. The herons want us to get our lake back.”
Beyond aesthetics, the disappearance of the lakefront in “lakefront property” has had the sobering effect on property values Sullivan has observed. Based on conversations with appraisers, she estimates the drop to be $40,000 to $50,000 per lot, “and that’s kind of in the mid-point,” she said. “At one of the higher-end homes – it was listed for $1.5 (million) before the flood. They’ve already dropped it $200,000, and no bites.”
In nearby Arcadia Lakes, the 20 homes damaged in the October deluge have been largely repaired, but similar problems remain.
“The lingering difficulty for the town is that our lakes are so central to the identity of our small town,” Arcadia Lakes Mayor Mark Huguley said. “The recovery for individuals and their homes has gone on successfully and, for the most part, is complete, but the recovery for the lakes is far from complete.”
Huguley is disappointed that no state or county aid has been forthcoming to help repair lakes and dams that, while privately owned, provide what he sees as a public service. The lakes help manage stormwater, while the state roads atop dams provide access in and out of neighborhoods for residents as well as emergency vehicles, Huguley said. “There is a shared responsibility,” he said.
Though area residents rejoiced when the Rockbridge Road bridge spanning Spring Lake was reopened on June 7, Stephen Cunningham, vice president of the Spring Lake Company, shares Huguley’s frustration.
“These lakes are a very critical and essential part of stormwater management, which is a county and state function,” Cunningham said. “If these lakes don’t get rebuilt, the value of all the properties on them is going to go down, and that’s a tax base they’re going to lose.”
Working back to a ‘new normal’
Twice a day, Cunningham, a retired engineer, checks the Spring Lake dam spillway weir, which he can see from his house. A lever on top allows the opening and closing of a gate valve, “and we’re using that gate now to regulate the flow of water,” Cunningham said. “We basically have to match the flow that’s coming into the lake with the flow that’s going out to try to maintain that little pool of water.”
At Spring Lake dam, underneath its still-closed road, fish splash in two to three feet of water – about six feet below normal lake levels, Cunningham said. Repairing the dam is job No. 1. When those repairs receive DHEC approval, the lake will be refilled. Clearing the sediment and debris from the lake will then require a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.
“It will probably take three months of work to repair the dam once we get started, so surely by the end of the year, we should be back to maybe a new normal,” he said.
Erich Miarka worries that, for particularly hard-hit areas, normal may be part of the problem.
Spring Lake is part of an intricate connection of creeks and lakes that make up the winding, 70-mile Gills Creek Watershed. Its lowest-lying points saw the greatest devastation – and at least two deaths – in October’s flood. Miarka, president of the Gills Creek Watershed Association, said the flood exposed dangers that haven’t been properly addressed.
“This flood was an opportunity to try to get people out of harm’s way, get them out of flood-prone areas, and for whatever reason, that hasn’t happened yet,” Miarka said.
Miarka’s organization is working with city and county agencies to identify projects most in need of the federal flood relief that is just now trickling down to the local level. It has earmarked 63 residential properties and 15 non-residential structures heavily damaged by the flood in need of relocation.
Those properties would be purchased by the county at a pre-flood market rate and turned into green space, with deed restrictions preventing future development, Miarka said.
“It’s important that people realize that this is likely to happen again,” he said. “If we don’t give the creek the space to flood, we are destined to repeat this same tragedy all over again, costing millions of dollars and, ultimately, people’s lives.”