Nine years later, Marlton homeowners may get lake back

This was the view from John Harm's deck before Kenilworth Lake was drained.
This was the view from John Harm's deck before Kenilworth Lake was drained. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 07, 2013

When a 1,000-year storm struck Burlington County without warning in 2004, 46 dams collapsed, causing massive flooding that led to about $50 million in property damage.

Though nearly all these earthen structures are back in operation, one Marlton dam became mired in nine years of contentious litigation when the state cracked down on deficient dams. And as the case was argued in court, the empty Kenilworth Lake sprouted a marshy forest of sea grasses, cattails, invasive plants, and 12-foot pine trees.

"It became overgrown, it's got mosquitoes, and it's marshy," said John Harm, president of the lake homeowners' association, a group with a membership of a dozen households. "There was a lake there. We lost the beauty, the fishing, the boating, and the ability to sell our homes for a reasonable amount."

In the next few months, the lake should return as a new dam is built.

The old Kenilworth dam, off woodsy Kenilworth Road in the middle of the Pinelands, did not collapse in the July floods.

But a couple of weeks later, a court order doomed it. Like many of the other dams, the Kenilworth Dam had failed numerous inspections, and the state Department of Environmental Protection wanted them all properly repaired or replaced to prevent catastrophes. State Superior Court Judge Ronald E. Bookbinder ordered the dam's owner to drain the 13-acre recreational lake, knock down the 400-foot-long earthen impoundment, and build a reinforced and better-engineered structure.

The judge gave Joseph Samost and his company, Pine Edge Development, three years to rebuild the dam. Samost, one of South Jersey's largest developers, ignored that and three subsequent orders. Before the storm, he had ignored two federal court orders to rebuild the dam, which had deficiencies and was rated Class II, meaning its breaching could cause significant property damage but probably not loss of life.

Samost did not return several calls for comment. His lawyer, Tom Hagner, did not return an e-mail.

The new project got underway after Samost and the homeowners' association reached a settlement. The homeowners agreed to contribute $84,000 to the roughly $600,000 reconstruction cost. In June, the work began, and the project is nearing completion.

Llewellyn Mathews, the court-appointed receiver overseeing the reconstruction, said the new dam should be completed in a month or less. After that, he said, the plants and trees in the lake bed will be mowed down and the lake will be refilled with water.

"There is so much vegetation in there that it would render the lake unusable" if it were not removed, Mathews said.

At the project site, a crane operator recently lowered steel sheets into the lake bed to strengthen the new earthen dam. A new concrete spillway was already in place.

"The dam also has a required emergency spillway . . . that "will carry flows generated by rain events greater than a 100-year storm," said George Timchal, president of Lippincott Jacobs Consulting Engineers, which is handling the project. He said there was also a mechanism that allows the lake to be lowered and raised.

After numerous court hearings, Samost had turned to the DEP for permission to decommission the dam. His lawyers had argued that he should not be strapped with the cost of reconstructing the dam and maintaining it. The homeowners who live on two bumpy dirt roads on either side of the lake fought the request, saying they should not be deprived of the lake that was there so long. Representatives of the homeowners who live along the upstream Sturbridge Lake and those who live adjacent to the downstream Union Mill Lake also opposed the move.

Kenilworth Lake, off Route 73 near the border between Evesham and Voorhees Townships, is fed by a tributary off Barton's Run. Commissioner Bob Martin took into consideration the impact on the various lakeside residents and the environmental value of the lake when he denied the request in 2011. DEP spokesman Bob Considine called it "a very unique case" and said the agency allowed only a few dams to be removed each year when there is no opposition.

Gary Lauk, another Kenilworth homeowner, said he was looking forward to the lake's return. "It's been frustrating, knowing we once had a beautiful lake and then lived nine years without it. . . . We are elated the litigation has been resolved, and hopefully very soon we will have water back in the lake."

Mathews said before the lake is refilled, the developer will have to get a permit from the DEP telling the agency how the dam will be maintained. He said the homeowners' association had agreed to take on that responsibility.

Then, once the gates to the dam are closed, the water should fill in naturally through the underground stream.

"Only a few other things need to be done," Harm said. "It's about 90 percent complete."

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

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