By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Lake Sandy Acres, Arkansas, homeowners with an inactive HOA recently learned they could lose their lake, because the old earthen dam that holds back the water could fail at any time. The dam has sprung a leak, and it’s in shabby condition.
So add Arkansas to the growing list of states with unregulated or loosely regulated dams that are supposed to be maintained by homeowners associations (HOAs).
Homeowners have asked for help, but the state says it has no money to help homeowners with repairs for a privately owned dam. The price tag could reach a half million dollars.
But a few dozen homeowners surrounding Lake Sandy don’t have that kind of money.
According to pubic records, the original developer and landowner transferred the dam to the property owners in 1992. A property owners’ association was supposed to be formed, but never got off the ground. Therefore, no money has been collected to maintain the dam for the past 16 years.
The community consists of owners of less than 50 homes. An additional 25 vacant lots are owned by the developer and his wife, both now deceased
In the meantime, since no one has paid property taxes on the lake since 2015, a tax sale is scheduled for July 2020.
Who, if anyone, will pay to stabilize or rebuild this Arkansas HOA dam?
IAC has previously posted articles about dam failures in North and South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, where many HOAs are responsible for maintaining and repairing privately owned dams.
And the track record of HOA maintenance is not very good.
In fact, poorly maintained dams, holding high volumes of water in private lakes, are a nationwide problem. If — or rather when — these dams fail, downstream residents and owners face hazards such as property damage, personal injury, or even loss of life.
By now it should be obvious.
It has never been a good idea to put private property owners (such as real estate developers or homeowners, with or without active HOAs) in charge of important and expensive infrastructure.
Unfortunately, when many lake communities or pond view homes were approved decades ago, no one considered that future homeowners would fail to maintain the manmade lakes and the dams that make their lifestyle possible.
Looking back, someone should have recognized the fact that very few homeowners posses essential skills and knowledge to properly maintain dams.
To do the job right, homeowners would have to consult a civil engineer to regularly inspect the dam, and advise them of needed maintenance and repairs. More importantly, homeowners would have to be willing and able to pay the high cost of keeping their lake’s infrastructure safe and solid.
They’d also have to understand the serious threats their action — or inaction — poses to public safety.
Inconsistent state regulation
Worse yet, County and City governments tend to pay very little attention to dams that create privately owned lakes. As long as the local government doesn’t own the property, potential problems are “out of sight, out of mind.”
Today’s featured article from Arkansas Democrat Gazette highlights another critical issue. Each state has its own record-keeping system, and its own regulations for dams. Some states are a bit more strict than others.
But, for the most part, record keeping is inadequate, so state regulators don’t even know about every private lake impounded by a dam.
Unfortunately, with a long history of sparse regulation and oversight, there are no easy solutions on the horizon.
Residents near 1 Arkansas lake warned of problems with dam; issue not uncommon in state
by Emily Walkenhorst | November 5, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
Arkansas Democrat Gazette
HENSLEY — The Lake Sandy dam that provides homeowners with a beautiful lakeside view poses many safety problems, a letter from the state said.
“The internal erosion and voids could cause the dam to collapse,” it read. “The many slides, slumps, erosion channels, large trees, rodent activity, and animal burrows on the upstream and downstream slope are very concerning and indicate a lack of maintenance.”
Mike Oglesby, who had asked the state for help, forwarded the letter to several of his neighbors.
They live by Lake Sandy in eastern Saline County. If the dam breaks, the lake would empty. They worry that they’ll be liable for damages if the dam fails.
It’s a structure and a responsibility that many of the homeowners didn’t know they were getting when they bought their homes.
No one has paid dues to the Lake Sandy Property Owners Association for at least 20 years, Oglesby and others estimate. The association hasn’t met, and no one has maintained the dam that the association acquired through a warranty deed from a real estate developer in 1992.
The Lake Sandy dam is a case study in what happens when there’s no maintenance done on an unregulated dam, a problem that is not uncommon in Arkansas.
Homeowners associations not taking care of dams is an issue throughout the United States, said Lori Spragens, executive director of the Association of Dam Safety Officials in Lexington, Ky.
“People move in, they don’t know they’re members of a homeowners association, they don’t know they own a dam,” Spragens said.
“Usually the dam is regulated, and so there’s a little bit of a stick the state has in having that homeowners association pay the bill,” Spragens said.
Smedley said parts of Lake Sandy Acres’ story are similar to those of other property owners associations.
“It sounds like they haven’t been doing what they should be doing,” he said.
“We have several dams that are owned by POAs, and it’s fairly typical that people want the benefits of the lake without having to pay for it,” he said.