After a 27-year exemption, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) will begin paying its share for maintenance along Beaver Creek, where water flows from Grand Lake.
ODNR officials – who filed a lawsuit in March 2009 objecting to an order by Mercer County Commissioners to pay annual maintenance fees – last week agreed in court to ante up their share for past and future upkeep.
The state agency governs the 13,500-acre lake and West Bank spillway, which pours into the creek.
Laura Jones, spokeswoman for ODNR, said state officials determined it was their duty to support improvements to Beaver Creek.
"We want to be good neighbors and good partners with the county," she said. "And we know how important the Beaver Creek is to the lake."
Jones noted the lawsuit was filed against the county under former Gov. Ted Strickland’s administration. When Gov. John Kasich’s team took over, ODNR officials consulted with the attorney general’s office and subsequently decided to step up to the plate, she said.
According to terms of the settlement, ODNR will pay past maintenance assessment costs totaling $32,850 in three equal installments in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
ODNR also will be added to the list of people who own the 1,530 parcels along the creek and annually are billed according to the benefit they receive from ditch maintenance by the county engineer’s office.
County commissioner Jerry Laffin said he feels the recent court settlement was fair.
"There’s justification for it. The Beaver is the main outlet for the lake and the law states that anyone in the watershed benefiting from the maintenance is supposed to pay," he said.
By law, the county engineer’s office can collect between 0 and 20 percent of the maintenance expenses from all benefiting landowners in the watershed. Assessments last year were calculated at 2 percent of the $12,000 cost.
In the near future – possibly next year – the engineer’s office is considering a more costly project to repair significant rock channel erosion, Mercer County Engineer Jim Wiechart said. ODNR’s annual assessment fee could climb to more than $70,000.
"In the future, to properly maintain that ditch, we intend to place rock channel protection along the banks where significant erosion is currently occurring," he explained. "This is a large problem out there."
The Beaver Creek issue between ODNR and the county began in 1984 when extensive work was performed on the 36,800-acre watershed to increase water flow and prevent erosion to nearby land. The cost of the project totaled $701,372. Landowners along Beaver Creek were assessed a fee of 2 percent of the project cost and began paying yearly fees for maintenance such as weed spraying and erosion control.
During that time, a special board of commissioners was appointed due to conflicts of interest with board members. The special board exempted ODNR from paying maintenance assessments in exchange for a one-time, up-front payment of $462,906 or 66 percent of the project cost.
In March 2009, Wiechart reviewed the earlier agreement with ODNR. He discovered the special board had no power to grant such a deal and further noted how the state-owned and operated spillway continues to impact the Beaver Creek.
Wiechart also told commissioners that without ODNR’s financial support "an inequitable share of the burden" to maintain the Beaver Creek ditch falls to other landowners in the watershed. He asked commissioners to void the 1984 agreement and include ODNR on the list of those being assessed for maintenance.
A public hearing on the matter was held March 10, 2009, but no one from ODNR attended. Commissioners immediately penned a resolution requiring the state to pay an annual assessment fee. Ten days later, ODNR filed the appeal in court.
Along with paying for maintenance along the Beaver Creek, the state also has lost several lawsuits filed by property owners over flooding from the spillway and Beaver Creek. The initial court cases were settled with millions of dollars awarded to the landowners; other cases remain pending.