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Failed dam leads to ownership issues

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Apollo Beach – Who owns our pond?
It’s a critical though seemingly simple question here this week among about 40 households along Lookout Drive who treasure and miss their rapidly disappearing waterfront.

Where homeowners along Lookout Drive once pedaled small boats and fished for the fun of it and enjoyed a range of wildlife, they now stare at an empty pond, its freshwater drained into the Flamingo Canal due to a failed dam designed to separate the two. With legal ownership of the pond and dam up in the air - and therefore no responsibility fixed for the failed structure - about 40 residents in the small Apollo Beach neighborhood now are looking to every potential agency and every possible approach in order to recover their prized water feature. Melody Jameson photos
It’s also crucial to the lives of untold numbers of ducks and their ducklings, schools of fish, aquatic birds of several varieties and all the assorted sub-tropical wildlife supported by a once-healthy Florida freshwater pond now diminishing to dirty mud. But, at the moment, no one — not the homeowners, not county authorities, not environmental protectors — knows the answer.
And time is running out. Consequently, about 25 of those frustrated residents came together Monday determined to do something.
The situation goes back some 20 years, they say, when the oblong pond on a north-south alignment was permitted as a retention area to accommodate run-off from a commercial area on its east side. Along its west side, a small neighborhood tucked away on the south side of Apollo Beach Boulevard was developed. The houses sold, residents came to appreciate their little waterfronts comprised of back yards sloping to the pond edge, encouraged the wildlife, even tooled around in small boats on the waterbody they delightedly claimed as their own.
As the neighborhood was built out, the developer, following custom, created a homeowners’ association, turning responsibility for all common area over to it. This responsibility has been presumed to include their freshwater pond and its dam-like structure at the southern end that separated the little water feature from the Flamingo canal.
pond2Not uncommonly, the HOA mired down in internal disputes and, ultimately, was formally dissolved late in the 1990s or early in 2000, says Bob Collins whose pondfront home is closest to the dam.
Dissolution of the HOA, however, had no immediate impact on life along Lookout Drive, residents indicate. Those closest to the pond continued to groom their backyards, kibitz with the neighbors, barbecue on their decks, feed and look out for the wildlife, enjoying their private waterfronts — until the last Thursday in April.
On April 29, the dam appeared to fail. Apparently, a hole opened up out of sight near the base of the structure and their waterbody began to disappear before their eyes. Not only did the freshwater flow away into the Flamingo canal, brackish canal water flowed in, residents say. Fish began to die. Vultures soon spotted the carrion. Ducks, many of them parenting new broods of hatchlings and unable to get out on the water, began to fall victim to predators. Pond birds cruised in puzzlement over the disappearing water, looking for meals no longer seen. And homeowner back yards stretched into smelly mud flats.
Several homeowners began looking for help for the pond they consider among the most outstanding in the county’s Adopt-a-Pond program, Collins says. They turned to Hillsborough’s Public Works Department and the Environmental Protection Commission. They tried to backtrack on the pond history. They looked for the original developer. No one, he notes, could help.
They are not alone in the search, however. County authorities also are trying to pin down pond ownership, now searching archived records for any pertinent documentation, said Steve Valdez, public information specialist for the public works department. The same look at archival records is underway in the offices of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, he added.
pond3The county cannot, by law, spend public tax dollars on private property, Valdez noted, adding that determination of who has legal jurisdiction over the pond is imperative. An inter-agency meeting, including SWFWMD and Hillsborough’s Planning and Growth Management Department, to discuss the ownership matter could be scheduled in the next two weeks, Valdez said. “We’re not trying to shirk any responsibility,” he added.
Niles Olsen, an engineer in public works, suggested the homeowners bordering the waterbody may themselves now own to the center of the pond bottom. But, he added, in matters such as this “nothing is simple.”
Meanwhile, the 25 residents in the Collins living room Monday came to several conclusions. They’ll investigate costs and opportunities to engage a diver to find out precisely where the dam failed and how large the hole is. They’ll look for a hydrology engineering brain in the University of South Florida’s College of Engineering to pick. They’ll determine the costs involved in creating sandbags sufficient to plug the hole. And, they’ll continue to look for means of financing recovery of their pond. They also agreed to re-assemble in a week or so to assess progress and any potential answers to their most pressing question.
Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson
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