ROCKINGHAM — Homeowners’ thirst for a Ledbetter Lake teeming with life is a step closer to being quenched.
State lawmakers have approved a bill that would allow Richmond County commissioners to fix the lake’s fractured dam and divide the cost between lakefront landowners. Repairs to the dam would give the lake, which state officials drained in July 2012, the chance to flourish once again.
“I think they all would say they’re better off with their property values with the lake there than not there,” County Manager Rick Sago said.
House Bill 1033, which gives Richmond County the authority to impose a special assessment for dam repairs on lake-adjacent property owners, sailed through the North Carolina Senate on a 44-4 vote Thursday after House lawmakers passed it by a fnal vote of 112-2 on June 30.
Ledbetter homeowner Dianne Dawkins said she’s not wild about the assessments, but she admits there’s little choice unless people want to see property values plummet.
“I don’t know exactly how to feel about it,” Dawkins said. “I do know we’re going to get our water back and we’re ready to do our part to make that happen. We’ll do whatever it takes to restore the lake.”
Rep. Ken Goodman and Sen. Gene McLaurin worked together to shepherd the legislation through the General Assembly. County commissioners previously passed a resolution asking Richmond’s lawmakers to sponsor the bill.
“I think the whole county benefits if the lake is back,” Goodman said
If Gov. Pat McCrory signs the bill into law, Richmond County can begin hammering out a deal with Ledbetter Lake residents to repair the dam. Sago said he’d like to find a lower bid than the $2.3 million estimate a property owners’ group received in April.
“The only people who will pay for this repair are the people who live adjacent to the lake,” Sago said. “They presented us a petition, and the last I saw, 72 percent of the property owners had signed the petition.”
McLaurin and Goodman introduced identical versions of a special assessment bill when the 2014 short session began in May. It was written as a local bill that would apply only to Richmond County, but bill drafters later said the measure would have to be filed as a statewide bill to pass constitutional muster. The legislators replaced “Richmond County” with “a county” in a substitute filing.
“Gene introduced it in the Senate and I introduced it in the House,” Goodman said. “We decided whichever one moved first was the one we’d go with.”
The House version was the first to pass committee hearings and was soon on its way to a floor vote. Both McLaurin and Goodman lobbied leaders in their respective chambers to hear the bill.
“I think both Ken and I have built good relationships on both sides of the aisle,” McLaurin said. “I think it really shows when you have things like this — you’ve got to go to your peers in leadership roles who are obviously in the other party to get your bills heard.”
McLaurin had a humorous exchange about the bill with Sens. Bill Rabon and Bob Rucho, who co-chair the Senate finance committee.
“The only question I got was whether it was a ‘dam tax increase,’” McLaurin recalled, “And I said no, it was a dam assessment….this is a very simple dam bill, and there’s no opposition I’m aware of to this dam bill.”
The quips added some legislative levity, with several state capitol correspondents noting that the homophone had the chamber in stitches.
“N.C. General Assembly humor: Sen. Gene McLaurin asks for support for an assessment for a dam bill,” North Carolina Public Radio journalist Jorge Valencia tweeted. “Everybody in the room is laughing.”
Goodman and McLaurin said the bill may not garner much attention in the rest of the Tar Heel State, but reviving Ledbetter Lake is an important issue for the 136 property owners along the lakebed.
“This was a success story in getting a bill to help solve a local community issue,” McLaurin said. “That’s really why we go to Raleigh — we want to do things for this district. I don’t think either one of us are up there trying to resolve all the big ideological questions.”
Lawmakers said the decisions about Ledbetter Lake’s future now rests with the homeowners and county commissioners.
“All this really does is gives the county commissioners the authority,” Goodman said. “It was never controversial. The logistics of it was just getting it through one chamber and over to the other one in time before everyone packed up and went home.”
The county manager said Goodman’s bill allowing the special assessment is likely to generate a call for bids for the Ledbetter Lake dam repair project.
“The first thing is they’ve got to get a price,” Sago said. “There’s a lot of different ways to do this, and we still have to figure out how we’re going to assess these people. We just haven’t gotten that far.”
Richmond County would likely borrow money to repair the dam and assess Ledbetter Lake property owners a fee to pay back the loan. Sago said commissioners would have to choose how to equitably divide the cost. The length of time that fees would be assessed may depend on the amount of the loan.
Ledbetter homeowners obtained a $2.3 million quote for the project. Sago said in an April meeting that the interest on a loan that size would add up to $1.7 million over 30 years.
“There’s one property owner out there who will have to pay $119,000 over the next 30 years for that dam,” Sago said in April. “They need to find a way to do this cheaper.”
Ledbetter residents own the dam through the Ledbetter Lake Dam Management corporation, which landowner Frank Parker formed in April 2013. The holding company purchased the aging dam for a nominal $1 fee.
Ledbetter Lake was created as a public water reservoir in 1880. State regulators drained it two years ago this month after finding leaks that could lead to flooding.
While Sago said the matter isn’t likely to surface in the county Board of Commissioners’ meeting next month, the new legislation may help Ledbetter homeowners get the ball rolling on a plan to repair the dam.
“This will spur them on, I think, to do what they can,” Sago said.
Reporter Melonie Flomer contributed to this story. Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670 and follow him on Twitter @RCDailyJournal.