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A surveying choice more than 60 years ago could translate to thousands of dollars in unexpected costs for property owners at Rough River Lake.
The impacted properties are “encroaching” on federal flowage easements — meaning they have livable structures or septic tanks below a 534-foot elevation boundary set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The elevation is designed to allow the lake to hold more water during periods of heavy rain, to ease the risk of flooding downstream. Limiting building and septic installation below the elevation is meant to reduce the risk of injury or death to people and structural and environmental damage from high water.
Many of the property owners didn’t realize they were in the flowage easements because of the way the boundary was marked when the lake was built in the 1950s. At that time the mostly empty acreage was surveyed using straight lines, instead of contour or property lines.
The Corps has divided the impacted properties into four groups, based on where their homes and septic systems are believed to be in the flowage easements.
About 200 people gathered at Rough River State Park Lodge Feb. 21 for a presentation to those with part or all of their properties below the 534-foot mark.
Diane Stratton, the Corps’ project manager for Rough River, explained the problems were identified in the wake of 2011 flooding, when the lake topped 527 feet.
Properties that supposedly were above the flowage easements instead had damage. Stratton ordered some limited surveys of the area and realized the easement boundary was higher than needed in some spots and lower in others.
The Corps then began to resurvey its roughly 320 miles of flowage easement in Grayson, Breckinridge and Hardin counties. To date, 51 miles have been rechecked, with 416 “habitable structures” found to be encroaching on the boundary. Surveys of another 85 miles are underway and should wrap up this spring, Stratton said.
For most of the impacted properties, the Corps should be able to release, or waive, the flowage easements, explained Col. Chris Beck, commander of the Corps’ Louisville District. But to do so, the property owners must prove there’s no risk to human safety or health, he explained.
They’ll have to have their properties re-surveyed, with the 534-foot elevation noted. They’ll have to have their septic systems inspected, and move the tanks above the 534-foot elevation.
They’ll also have to provide the Corps with other documents, such as copies of their deeds and any title searches done on their properties.
Once they’ve paid for all that and submitted the required paperwork, the Corps should be able to release the easements within four to six months, Beck said.
That had many in the audience upset, but his next words turned the crowd hostile: in addition to the paperwork, the property owners must pay the Corps “administrative fees” ranging from about $2,000 to $4,000.
“We understand this is an impact to all of you,” he told the crowd, explaining they would be able to pay in installments. “We understand this is the sticky part, but our goal is to get this done and lift the black clouds on your deeds.”
“But we didn’t do this + you did,” one man in the crowd yelled.
“How is it right that everybody here has to pay the Corps when we followed the law?” another asked Beck. “It’s the government’s mistake, but all these people in this room will have to pay for it.”
Beck said the Corps will need the administrative fees to pay for the legal and title work it will have to do, since it’s funded by the government “by the project.”
Fees have been charged in other similar situations, he said. “We are required to charge these fees, folks — we have no choice.”
Beck and Stratton said Kentucky’s Congressional delegation, state and county officials and the Corp are looking at ways to possibly reduce or eliminate some of the administrative costs.
Property owners will have a year to begin the surveying process.
One man asked what would happen if he simply ignored the Corps’ deadlines and refused to have his land re-surveyed.
Beck pointed out that legal holds the Corps has placed on the impacted properties will limit owners’ ability to sell them or do most renovations.
The man, who did not provide his name, responded he wouldn’t sell the property — it instead would be handed down to his heirs.
“I’m not going to tell you I’m going to come after you,” Beck said, but he and other Corps personnel pointed out they’ll look much less favorably on new or renewed dock permits for the impacted properties.
A small group of impacted property owners may have to demolish their homes due to the encroachment, but Beck said that’s a situation the Corps isn’t ready to address yet.
Another meeting with property owners was held Feb. 27, and a meeting with Realtors, developers and utilities is set for 6 p.m. March 9 at the lodge.
The Corps’ encroachment resolution plan is posted at http://www.lrl.usace.army.mil/Missions/Civil-Works/Recreation/Lakes/Roug....