ONARCHITECTURE- Mudfront property: Developer, homeowners disagree on 'Lake' Saponi

Five years ago, Lake Saponi resident Eric Nutter had a lake behind his house, but today he has this. PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR

As a homeowner at Lake Saponi in Greene County, Eric Nutter pays additional taxes for having lakeside property. There's only one problem: there's no lake in front of his property.

"When I moved here five years ago," he says, "I used to have a lake out back."

Indeed, aerial photos from 1974 to 2002 show water in front of Nutter's property on the Northern end of the man-made lake, which was constructed in the early 1970s. Recent aerial photos, however, show the lake's water level significantly reduced. Today, the old dock at the base of Nutter's property overlooks an overgrown meadow.

For the last three years, Nutter says, he and fellow neighbors have been trying to get Greene County officials to address the problem, which he claims stems from massive development in the area, most notably the planned Rapidan Center, a 100-acre site along Route 29 North (across from Luck Stone). Cleared several years ago by the Fried Company to make way for 750,000 square feet of mixed-use retail and commercial space, the site remains a barren tract of dirt and grass.

Add to that the nearby Gateway Center, which is anchored by a Lowe's and is awaiting a 150,000 square foot Wal-Mart Supercenter, the recently completed 122-room Best Western hotel, and the 15,000 square foot Tierney Retail Center (which includes a new Dunkin' Donuts, a day spa, an Anytime Fitness center, and a second location for Lord Hardwick's restaurant) just down the road, the Holly Hills subdivision across Route 29, and the Water's Edge housing development on the opposite side of the lake, and you've got Lake Saponi surrounded.

Greene County officials, long vexed by a paucity of commercial enterprises, have recently ramped up efforts to attract businesses.

In a 2007 story on NBC29, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors Steve Catalano lauded County staff for saving busnesses "literally millions of dollars through the process of approvals." County administrator Barry Clark said that a "streamlined process" had given the County a "business-friendly attitude." But could that attitude be wreaking havoc on Lake Sapoini?

Clark doesn't rule out development as the culprit. "This has been discussed in great detail," Clark tells the Hook, "and although sediment and erosion plans are in place, that is not a guarantee that silting will not take place under extreme conditions."

Still, he says it's neither the County's fault nor its problem.

"Any damages realized from neighboring developers would be," he says, "the developers' responsibility and litigated between them and the Lake Saponi residents."

That's a contention that irks Nutter.

"How can it be the neighborhood's responsibility?" asks Nutter. "It's not our job to control erosion from construction sites."

However, Clark believes that the drop in the Lake's water level included causes other than sedimentation. As part of a requirement of the nearby Water's Edge development, a clogged "riser" drain was cleared several years ago, lowering the lake level by three feet. Indeed, that's a claim that Troy Smith with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation confirms, saying he visited Lake Saponi last year after Nutter filed a complaint.

According to Smith, clearing the drain caused the lake to return to its natural level and has kept it there. Still, that hardly explains the lake's complete disappearance in front of Nutter's property, which, according to aerial photos, was there for over three decades. 

So how long had the drain been clogged? Smith couldn't say. So had sedimentation from nearby developments caused the lake to fill in? Smith said that both natural and man-made conditions contribute to sedimentation, but said he could not confirm that recent developments had caused the problem. 

However, according to Greene County's own Erosion and Sediment Administrator, Dan Ratzlaff, nearby developments, particularly the Fried Company's Rapidan Center, have indeed contributed to the increased sedimentation. 

"While it appears Fried neglected to install perimeter controls (sediment basin specifically) at the beginning of their construction process at the Rapidan Center site," Ratzlaff wrote to Nutter in a May email, "the only thing to do now is to get someone to clean the lake."

In a September email to Nutter, Ratzlaff said he had asked the the Fried Company if it might pool its resources with other developers and dredge the lake, a challenge to which Fried has yet to respond.

Asked for their side of the story, Fried Company's Steve Jones said, "There is no our side of the story."

Jones said all their grading and erosion and sedimentation plans were done by a professional engineer, and everything was reviewed and approved.

"In fact," says Jones, "additional work was done on-site for erosion control that wasn't on the approved plans."

Jones adds that all the work was inspected by County and State inspectors. "In the event there ever were any issues with our site," he says, "we have always responded in a timely fashion."

Jones mentioned no plans to help dredge Lake Saponi.

While Ratzlaff maintains that the cleared riser drain did return the lake to the level to which it was designed, it's clear that he believes that developers share some responsibility for the diminishment of Lake Saponi. 

"I apologize to you and your neighbors," Ratzlaff told Nutter, "but I believe your best chances for getting the lake cleaned out is to pursue matters with the developers yourselves. Since I have heard nothing from the Fried Company offering to help, I can only assume that they are hoping the problem will go away–- a typical reaction to something like this."

"It's only getting worse," says Nutter of the diminishing lake. "And I really think somebody should fix this." 

After three years of talking to Greene County officials and developers about Lake Saponi's woes, Nutter doesn't appear ready to give up, but he does appear to be getting a little punchy.

It's like the Dukes of Hazzard up here," he says. "I wish Bo and Luke would show up."