An inquiry into the feasibility of turning a private lake in Great Falls into a Watershed Improvement District (WID) has neighbors pitted against each other. The owners of Lake Werowance have petitioned the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (known informally as the Water Board) to establish the Piney Run Watershed Improvement District, to float a bond to pay for crucial repairs to the deteriorated lake, but some neighbors on the next ring of houses fear they could be sucked into the WID and forced to pay for lake improvement without enjoying any benefit.
While most Great Falls residents have not seen or used Lake Werowance, they have been impacted by the erosion of the lake over the years. Murphy Drive, Walker Road, Manning Street and Windswept Drive border the lake. A low-lying section of Walker Road, heading toward Route 7, floods on such a regular basis that markers have been erected to show drivers how deep the water is before they attempt to cross it. The flooding is just one of the issues residents attempting to float the bond hope to cure by repairing Lake Werowance.
The bond would range from $500,000 to $1 million, be tax-exempt and be payable over the next 30 years. This is only the third time it’s been tried in the state. The others were at Lake Barcroft, where there were thousands of homeowners and the initiative was successful, and at Timberlake in the Richmond area, where there were several hundred homeowners and the effort failed. There are only 16 owners of record in Great Falls working toward the WID.
THE HOMEOWNERS who ring the lake pay into a corporation for its use and maintenance. However, the scale of repairs needed at the lake far exceeds the ability of a handful of homeowners to fund. If they are successful in getting the bond floated for the repairs, they will pay on that bond over the next three decades, and should the original owners move, the new owners would assume the debt as part of the WID. Residents in other areas would not be expected to help pay for the bond.
Adelaide Barbey, the president of the Lake Werowance Association, explained, “What has been happening over the last few years, little by little this place has been flooding. Alone we cannot do anything. It is too big for us. We have several years of sediment built up, and it’s still coming. It will keep coming, and we cannot control it. If we don’t do anything, it will get worse, and the flooding will wash the sediment downstream, and we know where it will be going — into the Potomac.”
David Kinney, who has lived beside the lake for nearly 20 years, told Water Board officials that the group is “asking for the county’s help to be good stewards of the land.” He added, “As a group we’re asking for the administrative financial help the bond would give us. Nothing else, nothing from our neighbors.”
Kinney said he used to be able to boat and fish in the lake, but it has become so shallow that’s not possible anymore.
FRANK MELLON STRONGLY disagreed with the bond based on fears that the county could expand the district, and hence the financial burden, beyond the original landowners. “It can grow and possibly expose us to paying for a lake we get no benefit from. Why are they wasting the state’s, the county’s time, if they’ve got unanimous consent? Why don’t they just fix it themselves?” said Mellon.
Several homeowners, as well as the chairman of the Water Board, Jean R. Packard, verbally sparred with Mellon about the intention of the bond and the intention of the Water Board. Mellon would not be deterred and said, “I should have some type of control over what I’m being dragged into. If they want to upkeep it, why haven’t they just done that?”
Barbey said, “We’ve been talking to the Water District for years. There is a relationship between the county and us. This is not just us sitting down and writing a check. We have to respect the rules of the county.”
Board member Sally Ormsby added, “Rather than putting a nickel in a pot and hoping they have enough money, they are asking the district to make these improvements.”
There are two overarching fears associated with the lake in its current state. The paramount concern is that the dam for the lake could fail at any moment. The secondary concern is that the lake has eroded to such a point that there are stagnant areas that provide a mosquito breeding ground and could prove a health hazard to the community this summer.
“Basically, the dam is failing and would not be considered up to current code,” said engineer Timothy Schueler, who has evaluated the lake on behalf of the owners. Schuler explained that the monies raised through the bond would be used in two phases, the first to rebuild the dam and the second to dredge the lake to return depth and biological diversity to Lake Werowance.
If the Water Board green-lights the project’s feasibility and approves the district, a second, more detailed hearing on the financial aspects of the bond will be held. According to board member Gregory Evans, when the board determines the economics of the project, it will query the landowners to see that they can afford the extra money they will be required to pay.
The Water Board will make its decision by March 23, the next official meeting date.