Demolition debate recalled as council moves toward early dam removal
By Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report
In the wake of the June 29th drowning of a 9-year-old boy at the Riverton Dam new Front Royal Mayor Tim Darr has called a July 6th special meeting of the Front Royal Town Council.
According to a July 2nd notice from Council Clerk Jennifer Berry the intent of the meeting “is to act on a Resolution declaring the demolition of the Riverton Dam an ‘emergency’ within the meaning of Section 2.2-4302 (F) of the Code of Virginia, 1950, as amended.” The special meeting is scheduled for the town hall conference room during a scheduled 7 p.m. work session.
The June 29th drowning of 9-year-old Ryan Warner of Bunker Hill, West Virginia (see related story), came just seven weeks after 51-year-old kayaker Mark D. Grand, a four-tour veteran of the Iraq War, drowned after being sucked into the churning waters on the dam’s downstream side. Grand drowned on April 7 during a time of high water on the Shenandoah River.
Nine-year-old Warner fell off rocks near the dam to the upstream side while playing during a time of very low water on the river. Both 2010 fatalities were the result of churning whirlpools created by water flow over the dam and/or through cracks at the dam’s base as has often been the case in the past.
Who’s on first?
But with council now lining up behind Darr’s first mayoral initiative it certainly appears to be a case of Monday morning quarterbacking for some. As recently as March it appeared elements of council and perhaps a majority were about to reject a long-discussed $123,000 grant through the federal and state Departments of Game & Inland Fisheries to pay for the dam’s demolition. Total cost of the demolition is estimated at $126,000 with the town responsible for only $3,000 of administrative costs.
At a February work session this year Carson Lauder called the dam a historical structure that should be preserved if possible. The dam was purchased by the town around 1903 and was last used to any purpose in 1930.
At a council meeting on Feb. 22nd of this year Thomas Sayre argued against the demolition and voted against allowing the application process for the grant money to proceed. Citing “new” information from fellow Republican council candidate Joe Swiger, a former town electric department director, Sayre indicated a belief the dam remained useful and could be repaired at a reasonable cost to the town. During the council campaign Swiger disputed both state damage assessments and repair and upgrade costs estimated at $500,000 to a million dollars. The town would have been responsible to foot the entire bill of any repair effort had the demolition grant money been rejected.
In the face of Sayre’s initiative to kill the grant application process on Feb. 22, Town Manager Michael Graham assured council that continuing the application process did not commit the town to accepting the money and removing the dam if new information justifying its repair at town expense came to light. With that information in hand, council approved allowing the grant application process to proceed by a 5-1 margin, only Sayre dissenting.
With the issue suddenly in dispute, Shae Parker and Tom Conkey agreed the public should be allowed to chime in at a public hearing on the advisability of the dam’s demolition. That public hearing was scheduled for March 22.
While Mayor Eugene Tewalt, a former town public works director, had initially hoped the dam could be preserved to some future use, facing the half million to million dollar price tag to achieve repairs to a questionable end, the mayor acquiesced to common sense as a vote approached, suggesting council do the same.
Contacted after the July 6 special meeting was announced, Lauder said he regretted the tragedies on the river and would support the new mayor’s effort to speed up the demolition of the dam he once hoped could be saved. Should the grant money not be available earlier than to accommodate the current fall demolition schedule, Lauder said he would support the town borrowing the money from itself to expedite the demolition, and then repay itself with the grant money.
Conkey said he thought it was critical to speed the demolition up and believes acquiring the appropriate permits for the demolition would be the major stumbling block. Conkey added that he was especially impressed by the support of the rescue effort offered by the community. According to the Fire & Rescue press release that support came primarily from Donald Poe Construction and quarry operator Essroc in helping divert the river flow to facilitate the search and recovery of the missing boy. Other local companies offered support oversight and food to workers at no cost at the scene.
“It is a real statement about this community as a whole,” Conkey said of that community support.
On July 2nd Mayor Darr confirmed that he had contacted 10th District U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf’s office about help on the federal side to expedite the dam’s demolition. Darr said Wolf had replied positively and essentially said “let us know what you need.” Darr, who took office on July 1, said major questions surround not doing anything that would jeopardize the grant money while expediting the pace at which the demolition occurs. He added that the town is responsible for procuring a contractor to perform the demolition, so some of the special meeting discussion will involve expediting that portion of the process that is under the town’s control.
Darr told us initial discussions of piggybacking the dam removal to the building of the North Fork Bridge dated back to his previous tenure on council. After that option fell through, the potential availability of federal and state grants to accomplish the demolition came after July 1, 2008.
Sayre did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment on the status of the dam.
At work sessions during council’s winter discussion of the dam’s future and following through on acquiring demolition grant money, Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries Regional Fisheries Manager Larry Mohn called the dam “a high-hazard” structure with virtually no potential of future use. Mohn explained that assessment was a largely a result of reduced water flow at the dam as a consequence of increased public water usage from the river by communities upstream.
Mohn also told council removal of the dam would improve recreational uses by allowing canoe launch and retrieval site connections both up and downstream of the dam’s location. Responding to questions, Mohn said removal of the dam would have minimal impact on recreational uses upstream because currently the dam is leaking at its base, among other locations, so is not creating a great disparity in the river’s levels as it is.
Public comment – save it
One of the first citizens to weigh in on the matter was David Howard Benner. During public comments at one council meeting prior to the March 22nd public hearing on the dam’s fate, Benner asserted that from his own personal observations dams were important structures worldwide and so the Riverton Dam should be preserved. Benner based his stance upon past Christian missionary work he stated he had been involved in, in both Africa and Asia.
Benner suggested that rather than demolish the dam, the town utilize its attraction as a fishing and recreational spot by charging a licensing fee for permits to boat near it as a mean’s of revenue generation. Benner went so far as to dismiss the notion of the dam’s general public danger by suggesting that records of drownings at the dam be checked for the blood alcohol content of past drowning victims.
Public comment – demolish it
But apparently no new revelation about the dam’s future potential or the intoxication level of past victims was forthcoming between Sayre and Benner’s remarks on the advisability of saving the dam and the March 22nd public hearing.
During that public hearing other citizens with direct professional and personal connections to the river called for the dam’s demolition and supported the evidence presented by state Game & Inland Fisheries official Mohn several months earlier.
“It doesn’t make any sense to keep it,” Trace Noel told council on March 22. Noel referenced 20 years in business on the river and an even longer commitment to the river’s health. “It is amazing that at no cost to council you would leave this silent killer in place.”
Of efforts to regulate citizen activities around the dam as Benner had suggested and council attempted with installation of “No Trespassing” signs at the dam, Noel added, “I don’t think you can regulate human behavior – people will find a way to use it. I don’t think this council has given the proper gravitas (weight) to this … more importantly it is a life threatening entity. Please remove it.”
James Hart, chapter secretary and media chairman of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said, “I am here to strongly request that you vote for the removal of the Riverton Dam … I request that you provide consistent and commonsense leadership by having this archaic, costly and dangerous obstacle to recreation, tourism, safety and fish habitat removed at the Commonwealth’s expense.
Jerry Scholder suggested some fiscal consistency from council. “We can’t afford to keep the dam. Don’t spend more money on it – $3,000 for more studies is a waste of money,” Scholder suggested. During its internal debate council had considered commissioning a consultant study of the dam’s potential and condition at a cost of $3,000.
Another speaker, longtime local volunteer fireman Patrick Harvey, rose to ask a couple of pointed questions.
When was the dam last used by the town?
Not since 1930, Mayor Tewalt informed Harvey.
“Why are we still here talking about this?” a baffled Harvey asked council on March 22nd.
In a not unfamiliar turnabout, one month after attempting to kill the grant process to enable the dam’s demolition at virtually no cost to town taxpayers, Sayre then made the motion to accept the money. Finally council passed that motion without opposition.