(Photo: The Sells property on Lookout Creek the county has optioned.)
At the Dade County Commission's regular September meeting on Thursday, County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley provided a long-awaited "Great Lake" update, a report on where the county stands on its controversial plan to buy land for a reservoir on Lookout Creek. The update had been postponed at last month's meeting due to Rumley's rare absence in August because of an injury.
First of all, Rumley characterized the reservoir as "more a water board project" than a county commission initiative, a tack he has taken before, though on official documents the commission is listed as buyer of the land, and though it was through the commission's optioning of the acreage last year that a surprised county was introduced to the idea of a lake in Dade.
In fact, a reservoir on Lookout Creek had been mentioned in a long-range strategy plan of the Dade Water Authority as early as 2005, but the land the water company wanted for the project was not for sale back then. It was when the acreage did come on the market, and the county commission in June 2017 okayed $50,000 in SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) funds to option it from owner Jack Sells, that the reservoir became local news. Since then, Rumley has paid $25,000 in grant money to extend the option while he continues to search for more state and federal grants to pay the rest of the $500,000 Sells is asking for the property.
Meanwhile, the board of directors of the Dade Water Authority, or so-called water board, has secured a $450,000 GEFA (Georgia Environmental Facility Authority) loan to pay for the land if the commission cannot do that with grants, with the stipulation that the money will not be dipped into unless necessary, and unless the water board votes again to approve it.
Now that necessity seems to be coming to pass if the reservoir project is to go forward. Rumley said at the Sept. 6 meeting that the extended option expires Dec. 28 and he did not mention more grant money except to say: "We found out when we went to Atlanta that there's a whole lot more money to build it than there is to buy property."
Rumley also said a joint meeting of the county commission and the water board is planned and should take place within the next couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, he covered points he said he'd had questions on: About naming the reservoir after the Sells family, Rumley said: "It's not so much for Jack Sells as for his mother," who, he noted, was a beloved local school teacher who had taught many county residents. In any case, he said, the name was something that could be decided further on down the road by whoever was in charge when the reservoir was finally built. "What we're trying to do is acquire this property for our future and our children," he said.
Rumley stressed more than once that the reservoir was not something that would be completed overnight. He said it would cost about $5 million to build it at today's prices, but continually referred to it as a project that would be completed by a different leadership at some point in the unspecified future.
As far as a mention in the sale papers of docks for the Sells family: "We're not going to build Jack Sells any docks," said Rumley. The language in the sales contract people were asking about, he said, was just a clause put in to assure the Sellses had access to the water after they had sold the land. As for another clause about buying dirt for the levee from the Sells family, using on-site dirt made more financial sense than buying it elsewhere and trucking it in, said Rumley. "To myself and Robin [Rogers, the county attorney], that's a pretty good deal," he said.
And concerning a clause that allows Sells to continue using the land for agriculture after the purchase, Rumley said that except for an acre and a half of marshland, the lake property is a hayfield, and the clause was meant to allow Sells to continue harvesting the hay until such time as the lake is built. If he didn't cut the hay, said Rumley, trees would begin growing up and that could be a problem. Anyway, he said, the agreement could always be renegotiated in the future for that matter. "I don't think that's a deal breaker, that part," said Rumley.
Fielding questions from the audience, Rumley dismissed the notion that his fellow commissioners had not participated with him in the decision to buy the land. All the details had been covered, and agreed to, in one of the the commission's executive, or closed-doors, sessions, he said.
"Why in the hell can't you let the county vote on it?" asked one audience member. Another asked if Rumley would back off on the project if he perceived the majority of Dade citizens were against it. Still another recalled that the idea of a reservoir had been put to the voters in a non-binding straw poll question on a ballot several years ago and had received pretty solid support.
Rumley said he'd encountered more positive input about the lake project than negative, and had been told by citizens: "Look, this should have been done years ago."
Couldn't Dade just get water from Tennessee American Water if it needed more than it had? asked an audience member.
Yes, but that would make Dade dependent on another state for water and could end up being more expensive for the consumer, said Rumley. "Talk to Walker County" about how that had worked for Dade's neighbor to the east, he advised.
Rumley focused on the basic necessity aspect of the reservoir--"This is the actual life of Dade County as far as water"--but also talked about the recreational side of the project, mentioning gazebos, picnic tables, maybe even a walking track along the levee such as some reservoirs had in other counties, "where you can go and just enjoy life outside."
What about the price? asked The Planet, the $500,000 price tag for 60-odd acres of farmland having been perceived as a mite high in some local opinion. Actually, said Rumley, the land had appraised for $503,000, and, besides: "We've got some things going on right now with Mr. Sells that may affect that on down. I can't really talk about it right now."
"I still think the citizens of Dade County ought to have a say-so," grumbled one audience member.
He appeared to be talking about a referendum, but if the citizens of Dade County want to say their so to the county boss in general, Rumley invites them to have at it. "There's really nothing secret about it," he said. "All you've got to do is call or come by this office."
"This office" is the commission office in the Dade Administrative Building on the Trenton town square. Rumley's numbers are (706) 657-4625 and (423) 667-8999 (cell).