Wake County

Some push for rebuild of historic Little River dam in Wake County

People assemble on both sides of the flooded bridge on N.C. 97 where the Little River overflow was nearly level with the dam after Hurricane Matthew in Zebulon, N.C. on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.
People assemble on both sides of the flooded bridge on N.C. 97 where the Little River overflow was nearly level with the dam after Hurricane Matthew in Zebulon, N.C. on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. amoody@newsobserver.com

Some people in this eastern Wake County town are rallying in hopes of saving the historic Little River dam that crumbled during Hurricane Matthew last fall.

A Facebook page called “It’s A Dam Shame” encourages residents to urge the Zebulon Board of Commissioners to rebuild the 150-year-old dam near N.C. 97.

The structure, where the Little River meets N.C. 97, was once a mill and later a water source for Zebulon before the town merged utility services with Raleigh in 2006. It has become a popular local attraction and adjoins Little River Park, where people often fish, picnic or simply enjoy the rural view.

Frank Timberlake, who owns a public relations and advertising firm in Zebulon, created the Facebook page after several supporters of the landmark approached him.

“The idea was to draw some public attention to the dam, so if people didn’t know about it they could find out,” Timberlake said. “I love that place down there. It’s just a piece of magic in eastern Wake County, and I just feel strongly it needs to be put back to some semblance of what it was – even if that’s better.”

Most of the center and a portion of one side of the stone wall was breached during Hurricane Matthew in October, draining the pond above as the Little River swelled.

Hurricanes have damaged the structure before – Fran in 1996 and Floyd in 1999. Based on the cost of repairs after those storms, Zebulon leaders estimate it would cost $350,000 to restore the dam.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency would reimburse 75 percent of the cost, and North Carolina would reimburse the rest. The current FEMA deadline for repairing the dam is next April, but Town Manager Joe Moore said he is optimistic the agency will give the town more time.

But it’s unclear if the town will fix the dam at all. Moore’s recommended town budget includes money for a master plan for Little River Park, which some have associated with the dam’s demise.

Town leaders have said they like how the river looks without the dam, and lower water levels make more space accessible for exploring nature where the reservoir once existed.

“We have to go through the master planning process anyway, in order to get a better understanding of what to do with that dam,” Moore said. “The other thing that does is that opens us up to other grant opportunities. And it not only brings the community together, it brings partners together.”

Moore said some of the newly exposed recreational space could remain if the dam is repaired. He also suggested a structural assessment of the dam.

The town could choose to repair part of the dam, rebuild it completely or spend the money that would be used for repairs on another project, Moore said.

“We threw out the idea of a boardwalk or a pedestrian bridge going over the back side (of the dam), or getting access to the island,” he said.

Mayor Bob Matheny and Commissioner Don Bumgarner said they’d hate to let the dam go. Commissioner Glenn York said he was on the fence after hearing Moore’s latest update.

“It sounds to me like we can restore (the dam) and still do some planning for a study on the park,” York said. “You’re getting both sides – the historical preservation side and FEMA money – but with the most recent information, we have more flexibility with it, I think.”

The Facebook page encourages residents to attend the June 5 Board of Commissioners meeting, which will include a public hearing on the town budget.