Pond residents appeal to community for help

Pond residents appeal to community for help

Frank Schoebel, riparian representative on the Lake Improvement Board for Clarkston Mill Ponds, explains some of the history of the upper and lower ponds. Photo by Phil Custodio

BY PHIL CUSTODIO
Clarkston News Editor
“Clarkston grew around the mill pond that was created to harness the power of water,” according to the historical sign posted at the water’s edge off Washington Street.
Residents around the pond are asking the community to return the favor, as they debate how to restore and preserve the downtown water feature.
“The City of the Village of Clarkston benefits by having the mill pond there,” said Main Street resident Steve Hargis at a meeting of the Lake Improvement Board for Clarkston Mill Ponds, Aug. 13. “When people visit, they walk by it and around it. Business owners derive benefit from it being there. It’s an attraction for the community.”
The board is in charge of the lower mill pond, created by the old mill dam under Washinton Street, and the upper mill pond, located to the north across Miller Road.
The upper pond has been shrinking over the past several years and becoming overgrown with algae.
“The upper mill pond reverting back to a river is inevitable unless major dredging occurs,” said Holcomb Road resident Marc Moses. “Odds are that’s not going to happen. The lower pond residents have a nice body of water. We get more lawn.”
Dredging or other pond work, or bring the dam up to current standards would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Jacy Garrison, board member and environmental planner with the Oakland County Drain Commission.
According to the Clarkston Area Historical Society, Butler Holcomb sold the mill and water rights to the pond to brothers Jeremiah and Nelson W. Clark in 1838. The Clark brothers built the original, 200-foot-long dam on the Clinton River to create a 22-foot-deep mill pond, powering their grist and saw mill. Washington Street was built on top of the dam.
In 1941, Henry Ford rebuilt the dam to provide more power for his new Village Industry upholstery factory at Clarkston Mill. In April of 1941, mill pond waters from heavy rains burst through the new dam’s construction site. The Clarkston News’ April 25, 1941 edition showed the mill pond emptying out through the gap in the dam. Ford returned to construction and completed the new dam later that year.
The upper pond was dredged out to create lakefront property about 40 years ago, said Frank Schoebel, riparian representative on the board.
“Mother Nature is taking it back to its natural state, a stream,” Schoebel said. “North of Bluegrass is the natural stream fed by tributaries north of here.”
Bob Roth, who now owns the dam along with his brother, Ed Adler, asked the board to review Springfield Township’s partnership with Oakland County Parks and Recreation regarding its own mill pond dam.
“We’ve tried to give it away. No one wants it,” Roth said. “There are 100 questions about what will happen when it breaks someday – we should be prepared for an emergency situation.”
Davisburg’s sawmill and dam on the Shiawassee River were built by Cornelius Davis in 1836, according to a Springfield Township study. The dam was repaired and a new grist mill built in 1854, but it fell into disuse by the 1940s. Springfield Township and Oakland County Parks and Recreation department signed an interlocal agreement in 2015 to manage the dam, with the county paying 55 percent of the costs and the township responsible for 45 percent.
Ownership of Clarkston’s mill pond is more complicated, with Roth and Adler owning the dam and easements along the spillway leading to M-15, along with the bottom land under the pond.
Residents around the pond own to the water’s edge, and the pond water itself is owned by everyone in the state.
The bottomland-ownership arrangement goes back to Henry Ford’s mill 70 years ago.
“It’s a historical anomaly,” Schoebel said. “Roth and Adler are doing their best guess (opening and closing the dam to manage the pond water level). It’s an antique system. The problem if the homeowners take it over, is it’s liable to fail.”
The dam also affects how much water flows through the mill race in Depot Park, he said.
The Mill Ponds Improvement Board should develop and apply a more equitable formula for assessment that more fairly considers property ownership and liability in setting fees and taxes, said upper pond resident Mike Fetzer in a letter to the board.
“It seems inequitable that the owner of an entire pond bottom who controls the water levels contained within that pond would have the same parcel assessment liability as homeowners whose property merely abuts that pond, or for homeowners whose property includes only a small portion of a pond bottom,” Fetzer said. “It seems that a property owner, and not his/her merely adjacent neighbors, would be responsible for the expense of maintaining his own property, above and below water.”
Hargis said upper and lower pond residents need to work together, because the ponds are linked and affect each other.
“I think we need to dig into this deeper,” he said. “Those of us who live on the lake are not the only ones to benefit from it. Maybe we’re not the only ones who should be considered as payers. Maybe we should think about getting funding spread around a bit.”
“I think it should be a community solution project,” Schoebel said. “We’re in this together. That’s how we solve it.”
Board member Rachel Loughrin, also Independence Township treasurer, said they have researched grant opportunities, but haven’t been able to find anything applicable.
“Public monies are not available for dredging projects,” Garrison said. “They might be for dams in catastrophic failure mode, typically for dam removal.”
Board member Eric Haven, also Clarkston mayor, said they can look into making it a ballot issue.
“I get the holistic nature of this,” Haven said.
The ponds extend north into Independence Township, so the city would have to work with the township, said City Manager Jonathan Smith.
“It would be complicated – we would have to get the village and township to approve it,” Smith said.
The lake board voted unanimously at the meeting to approve a budget of $10,695 for maintenance and permits next year, charged equally to the 65 property owners around the ponds.
Residents at the meeting signed up to form a subcommittee to look into hiring an engineer, as well as options regarding the dam and other projects.
“We hope to come up with 3-4 options to save the pond,” Schoebel said.

2 Responses to "Pond residents appeal to community for help"

  1. Cory Johnston   August 22, 2019 at 5:55 am

    65 residents on a body of water that has no public access and provides little benefit other than to those that live on it, want everyone else to pay for their problems? While the Mill Ponds are certainly an aesthetic benefit to the area, historically they were a major part of the economic growth that developed Clarkston as the mill and village that grew up around it required the water to make it all work.
    I have a small natural pond on my property that I paid to have dredged out after years of previous owners dumping leaves and other yard waste into it. My neighbors have man made and natural ponds that they also maintain without assistance from any government. All of them are part of the natural drainage on the northeast side of Main Street that eventually goes into Parke Lake, much in the same way that the Mill Ponds drain the area to the west side of Main Street.
    Instead of wanting everyone to pay to benefit only a few, why don’t they come up with something that is beneficial to all? Can the mill and dam be converted to generate electricity? Seems like it would be possible. Can the homeowners take measures to reduce the algae and aquatic growth? Yes they can but are they? Has the flow of water been reduced due to whatever may be happening up river from the Mill Ponds? Who is responsible for that? What happens if the dam fails either closing off the flow or allowing it to flood Depot Park? The controls and structure are almost 80 years old and will eventually fail. What happens then?
    I would like to see better long term alternatives than taxing all for the benefit of a few.

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  2. MIKE FETZER   August 22, 2019 at 6:23 am

    Of course Mr. Roth wants to give away his dam—let someone else pay to maintain his property! He bought the thing with valuable adjoining property which seems to have been a good investment—except for an expensive dam to maintain. Why not try to unload it on some dupe? But the dam owners are responsible for maintaining their dam property. I think it’s outrageously arrogant to suggest that residents should be prepared for an emergency situation. If the dam fails, these affected will be looking to recover damages from those responsible, including dam owners who own the dam, apparently foresaw an upcoming emergency and yet failed to facilitate necessary repairs and updating to their dam property to prevent the inevitable.

    Government must do more to explore liability for the dam’s operations, including the efforts to manipulate ponds’ water levels. While some water rights may have conveyed with the property, some early conveyance documents indicate a plausible interpretation that the water rights are tied to the operation of a Mill—a Mill which no longer exists! The unpredictability of ponds’ water levels is frustrating to surrounding homeowners bewildered about how water flow in the Clinton River is somehow controlled by just a few individuals who own a dam. Government must undertake to assess the impact of the dam and its operation on the local environment—including wildlife, erosion, sedimentation, vegetation and water quality. Such possible environmental impacts of dams, including sedimentation, are well established.

    While the Mill Ponds may benefit the community when properly maintained, their deterioration may have adverse impacts on surrounding properties. Privately owned dam maintenance is not a public responsibility, but owners should be held accountable.I keep my lawn mowed, house painted and my trees trimmed, but I wouldn’t suggest invoicing my surrounding neighbors for my maintenance costs. If I failed to maintain, the township would be citing and fining me. Let’s see some more aggressive, responsible oversight and enforcement action by government officials when it comes to the dam and Mill Ponds…

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