Town staff is proposing a long-range plan for Little River Park that flies in the face of the mayor’s desire to pursue federal funding to repair the historic dam that Hurricane Matthew breached.
A general poll on the two options earlier this month showed most commissioners like the master plan idea more than the repair route, which comes with some uncertainty.
The town has 18 months from the date of the October storm to complete repairs in order to comply with requirements of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would reimburse 75 percent of the estimated $350,000 cost. But it would take about two years to rebuild the dam to its previous state, and the town has yet to take any action.
“We will not meet that time frame,” Town Manager Joe Moore said. “We will exceed that time frame by a year.”
When Zebulon leaders asked for a 45-day extension, FEMA said it does not consider extension requests until a project has started.
Mayor Bob Matheny said he doubted the agency would let the town start a repair project and then withdraw its funding support over a missed deadline.
“My concern is if we don’t get the FEMA money, I don’t believe we’ll ever build the dam back, period, no matter what the master plan shows, because it’s going to come out of our pocket,” Matheny said. “I don’t think we’re going to reach in our pocket for $350,000 to repair that dam, so basically we’re throwing away the money that’s available to us from FEMA to do it.”
Some commissioners took issue with restoring the dam to its previous state. They prefer a more thorough and significantly more expensive structural overhaul.
Three hurricanes over the course of 20 years caused the dam to fail, though it held firm for 17 consecutive years in that time.
“We don’t need to just put the dam up there and put the rock up there and let the next hurricane wash it away again,” Commissioner Dale Beck said.
Public Works Director Chris Ray said the structure is weak in several spots and that more permitting is required today compared to 1999, when the town repaired the dam after Hurricane Floyd.
“To put that dam back is not a simple as maybe putting some blocks and mortar back in,” Ray said. “To put it back where it would be lasting in the community a long time is going to be a significant structural attempt.”
Beck and fellow commissioners Curtis Strickland and Beverly Clark seemed content with staff recommendations based on the current state of the park space.
Since the nearly 150-year-old dam ruptured, the water level in the Little River has fallen to reveal natural features and make more space accessible than before.
“I like to see the river flowing, and you didn’t see that river when the dam was there,” Strickland said. “I think right now it’s attracting more people the way it is.”
Parks and Recreation Director Greg Johnson said the land along the river is now more suited for hiking and exploring. He showed photos from a recent visit, pointing out places that were underwater before the dam failed.
“One of the major trends is getting the kids back outdoors – getting them healthy by connecting them with nature,” Johnson said.
‘I’d sure hate to walk away’
Johnson said he talked to several people who like what the space has become, but he added that he had heard from both sides on the issue.
“I’ve also talked to one or two (residents) who have lived in Zebulon all their lives … and they don’t think there’s another option other than putting the dam back,” he said.
Commissioner Don Bumgarner sided with the mayor in wanting to see the dam repaired. Commissioner Glenn York was not present for the discussion.
“From a historic standpoint, I’d sure hate to walk away from that dam,” Bumgarner said. “I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but if we do repair it and there is another hurricane, we go to FEMA again and (ask for) more money. That’s a possibility. It’s just been such a focal point of the town for years and years.”
Creating a master plan for the park is a project included in staff’s recommended spending plan for the year starting July 1. That means commissioners could make the dam a separate issue by simply keeping the park in the budget they approve.
Matheny wanted to hold a separate vote ahead of that time, to confirm the board does not want to rebuild the dam. The council hasn’t set a date for that vote but could call for one at the June 5 meeting.