Water trickles from a dam breach at the old Preserve site at Rising Fawn.
Dade County has for over a decade been negotiating with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's Safe Dams program about its old earthen dam on Lookout Lake, which EPD wants improved but County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley swears will hold when the rest of us are ashes and dust. Now Dade has a serious dam breach--but it's not Lookout. It's another earthen dam on the site of the old Preserve, the failed development in Rising Fawn. "They didn't know it existed," said Rumley.
Rumley and county roads crew boss Billy Massingale were in Rising Fawn Monday morning to assess the dam situation, and they kindly allowed The Planet to tag along and take pictures inside the gated Johnson's Crook acreage. They explained the dam and in fact the whole parcel of land is private property now and not the county's liability. They are, however, keeping an eye on the breach for EPD. “We’re their eyes and we keep them from driving 250 miles to monitor this thing," said Rumley. "Also, it’s the safety of the people.”
Rumley and Massengale say when--and that's not an "if," folks--the dam goes, it will take out the main Preserve access road and a couple of barns along the way. No life is threatened, but it will make commuting difficult for the occupants of two houses that overlook the lake beside the dam. Rumley said, though, the houses are also served by a back road out through the woods that rejoins the main one near the Newsome Gap road junction.
Dade roads boss Billy Massengale scratches his head as he looks out over the Preserve lake at two houses that will be affected by the dam breach. The dam is on private property and there's not much the county can do but monitor the situation and shake its head sadly.
Rumley said the lake and dams were built by the late Eugene Johnson, the colorful, overall-clad Rising Fawn business tycoon who owned the beautiful Johnson's Crook parcel before selling it to Southern Group, the developer whose use of it culminated in an FBI investigation and a federal fraud trial in 2013. In building the dam, Johnson apparently did not consult EPD about any applicable regulations or codes, according to Rumley. Asked if Johnson would be in hot water with the state now, had he lived, Rumley said: "I don’t know what fine it would be but they definitely would have a talk with him.”
As it is, the headache of the dam has been inherited by the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust, which took stewardship of the Crook after the collapse of Southern Group's no-money-down-no-monthly-payment pyramid scheme resulted in a tsunami of foreclosures and bankruptcies. Individual homeowners hold houses and acreage at the Preserve site, and they address some infrastructure concerns via a neighborhood association, but Rumley said the land trust has admitted ownership of roads and dams.
(Photos: Above, Ted Rumley photographs a crack in the road atop the dam for EPD. Below right, Billy Massingale, also on road atop dam, shows where part of the dam has already crumpled into the lake below. Below left, aerial photograph of dam site.)
The county learned of the breach when one of the handful of residents who live full-time at the old Preserve site saw it on the way to church a week ago, on Sunday, May 6. Since then, Rumley and crew have been watching the problem and have put the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust in the know. The trust had earth-moving equipment at the site on Monday morning. “They’ve lowered it by three feet just by pumping,” said Rumley.
But neither Rumley nor his roads chief expressed much optimism about the fate of the dam itself. Rumley pointed out a fissure in the road that runs along the top of the earthen dam. “This crack is not supposed to be here,” said Rumley. “Tomorrow or the day after when the rain hits, this will fall off.”
Billy Massingale indicated the water trickling out from under the dam. “As soon as that lake gets full again, more than likely this is going to break and come off," he said. "It’s a matter of time. Ain’t no question if it’s going to do it, it’s just when it’s going to do it.”
Again, the main damage is expected to be to the main Preserve access road, Johnson Treeline Drive. But there is one more concern for the county: This small home, owned by Starla Powell outside the Preserve, across Newsome Gap Road. Ms. Powell lives here among charming green pastures behind the Newsome Gap house of her parents-in-law, and her place is also expected to be directly in the flood path. Mary Powell, the mother-in-law, says the family is in touch with the county daily and watching the situation carefully.
Rumley and Massingale think EPD will probably advise the land trust to address the dam problem by putting in a siphon. “We’ve got one out at Lookout Lake," said Rumley. "That’s what’s kept it rolling all these years, an eight-inch pipe running continuously. That’s really what they need to do there.”
Rumley expects the situation to come to a head in the expected coming heavy rains. “We’ve not had any rain at all since it started, so this week will tell the story,” he said.
Katherine Eddins, director of the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust, and Nathan Wooten, chairman of the homeowners' association at the Preserve, were both contacted for comment but did not return phone calls by press time.