Developer pays toward dam upgrade, avoids jail

Posted: July 17, 2013

A controversial South Jersey developer narrowly avoided incarceration Monday afternoon when he paid $41,400, per a judge's orders, toward the upgrade of a potentially dangerous Medford dam he previously owned.

In May 2004, the state Department of Environmental Protection sued Joseph Samost's former development company for failing to repair the Centennial Lake Dam, saying a breach could result in deaths and significant property damage.

After several rounds of litigation and appeals, a judge appointed a receiver to oversee improvements to the earthen dam, which the DEP cited for having inadequate spillways as early as 1979.

Last month, when Samost refused to contribute to the cost of an $89,000 engineering study, a Superior Court judge set a deadline and warned she would issue a bench warrant for his arrest if he did not pay his share.

Judge Karen Suter, who sits in Burlington County, gave Samost until 4 p.m. to come up with the money after dismissing his argument that he had given away his assets and funds to his wife, Iva, and his family, and was living on Social Security.

Samost, 85, could not be reached for comment. His lawyer, Thomas Hagner, was on vacation, his staff said.

J. Llewelyn Mathews, the court-appointed receiver, said he received Samost's share Monday afternoon. Mathews said Samost had ignored Suter's May 24 order and there was nothing more he could do to compel him to comply.

Samost had contended he was insolvent after he said he had disbursed all of his funds for tax purposes and estate planning. But Mathews said that his 2007 and 2008 tax returns showed he had "hundreds of thousands" of dollars in taxable income, according to court documents.

Suter said the delays in repairing the dam were "appalling," and cited a 2009 finding by her predecessor, Superior Court Judge Michael Hogan, that Samost "had been manipulating his assets through interlocking entities of which he was the 'true' owner" and that Samost had various entities but "controlled everything."

Mathews said that Samost later sold or transferred the dam to his son, Stephen, a lawyer who is also a developer. A court assessed the father and the son each a 45 percent share of the costs of the dam's upgrade and ordered the Centennial Pines Club Homeowners Association to pay the remaining 10 percent.

An engineering firm is being hired to determine the best way to repair the dam, Mathews said. He said that the dam was functional but that the level of the lake had been lowered. It is unknown what the total project will cost.

Mathews said Stephen Samost and the homeowners' association had agreed to pay their shares, but that he had to take Joseph Samost to court before he could hire the engineering firm to begin work.

The dam was not among the 17 in Burlington County that burst in July 2004, causing the evacuation of more than 800 people and more than $50 million in damage. At the time, 10 of those dams had already been found to be deficient and were facing DEP enforcement action.

Since then, the DEP has been working to bring those dams and others into compliance.

Another dam owned by Joseph Samost - the Kenilworth Dam in Evesham Township - did fail when more than 12 inches of rain fell in the 2004 storm. That dam is also under Mathews' court-ordered supervision.

Joseph Samost has paid more than $250,000 of the estimated $600,000 cost to rebuild that dam. But his payment for this project also required court intervention.

Hogan had to warn Joseph Samost he would impose a $1,000-a-day fine if Samost did not make the deposit.

Samost's next deadline is Aug. 3. Suter assessed $6,500 in attorney's fees and costs for ignoring her May 24, 2013, order to pay his share of the Centennial Lake Dam engineering costs, leading to enforcement costs that can be recovered. Samost had appealed her ruling and lost.


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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