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Mid-Michigan Leaders Fear Legal Effort To Expand Dam Funding District Will Derail Reconstruction

several small wooden docks over grass and dirt, there is not water
Docks stand dry on what used to Sanford Lake after the dam that held back the lake was damaged after flooding in 2020.

An attorney at a Detroit-area law firm is looking at options to reduce the amount of money people have to pay to rebuild dams that were damaged during flooding in 2020.

But some local leaders fear the effort could prevent the dams from ever being restored.

The special assessment district that funds the four dams along the Tittabawassee and Tobacco Rivers was set up in 2019—before the spring floods that damaged the dams and emptied the lakes they held back.

Now, people who live in the district are expected to pay not just to maintain the dams but to rebuild them.

Jackie Cook, an attorney at Novara Law in Troy, said that’s simply not possible for some property owners.

“They were okay with the amount that was going to be assessed at that time. The world is much different now,” she said.

Cook is exploring options to broaden the group of people footing the bill. She said more people paying into the fund would decrease the amount each person owes.

But Tim Holsworth, the president of the Sanford Lake Association, which represents property owners around one of the now empty lakes, said Cook’s efforts could result in a lengthy legal process to establish new district borders. It could also lead to a vote that sinks the possibility of funding entirely.

The district around the lakes was established by a court, not a popular vote, Holsworth said, and putting it to a vote now could defeat the measure.

“The problem is, it goes from a special assessment to basically a millage, and a millage means a vote, and a vote means it probably won’t pass,” he said.

In a statement posted to its website, the Four Lakes Task Force (FLTF), which administers the special assessment district, said legal action could delay rebuilding and divert funds from the lakes and dams.

“When FLTF is required to defend itself or the Four Lakes Special Assessment District, those costs will eventually be paid from the revenue derived from special assessments,” the task force said.

Cook said she’s been in touch daily with people who are interested in expanding the district. It’s a divisive issue around the drained lakes with neighbors’ yards sometimes sporting dueling signs supporting or opposing the assessment district.

Rich Violette, who lives on what used to be Sanford Lake, said keeping the district as it is represents residents’ best hope of getting their lakeside property back—even though they're not responsible for the failure of the dams and the emptying of the lakes.

The dams' former owner, Boyce Hydro Power, has been fined millions of dollars by the federal goverment for safety lapses that contributed to the failures.

Violette said efforts to expand the district are misguided.

“It pisses me off, to be quite honest with you,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s fair, but we used to live on a lake. We had property on a lake. I’d like to get back to that as soon as possible.”

Cook said her exploration of options to expand the assessment district can happen in parallel with construction planning.

She said no litigation has been filed, and it might never be. “Everyone I’ve spoken to wants to make sure the lakes come back ... and they don’t want to do anything that would potentially prevent the lakes from coming back,” she said.

“We’re just looking for other solutions to make sure that they are not saddled with a larger financial burden than what was intended in 2019.”

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