PERU – The Indiana Supreme Court last week said it will not make a ruling on a case that puts residents in a housing addition near Peru on the hook to repair six deteriorating dams, bringing an end to a seven-year legal battle between homeowners and the county.
Residents in the Hidden Hills housing addition in September petitioned the court to overturn a ruling by the Indiana Court of Appeals, which determined the homeowners are fully responsible for dam maintenance.
That decision overturned a ruling issued last year by a Marion County judge that said Miami County was fully responsible for repairing the structures, since all six dams have roads running over them and were accepted into the county road system.
But last week, the Indiana Supreme Court voted 3-2 to not take up the case, leaving the court of appeals ruling in place and requiring homeowners to now begin making plans to repair the dams.
The need for those repairs was first announced in 2013 by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which sent letters to more than 20 landowners saying they had failed to maintain the structures and keep them in safe condition.
The DNR said issues included the lower portion of the spillway chute that had failed and substantial embankment erosion in the area at the failed spillway chute.
The letter was also sent to the Miami County Board of Commissioners. Since then, the property owners and county have fought over who is responsible for making the repairs.
Larry West, a Miami County commissioner and an owner of a portion of one of the dams, said even though homeowners are now responsible for repairs, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, residents are relieved a final decision has finally been made.
“Now, we have to swallow this pill and deal with it,” he said. “It’s been hanging over our head for seven years, so I think there’s a kind of sigh of relief that we now have to deal with it, so let’s just get started.”
Commissioner Alan Hunt, who has argued the county shouldn’t be required to make repairs to the dams, said he was happy with the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision to not take on the case.
“I think this is the way it should be,” he said. “The dams only benefit a handful of people in that subdivision, so if they want to have lakes and ponds in their backyards, that’s fine. They just need to take the responsibility to maintain them. That’s my position.”
West said he and other dam owners are meeting with an attorney next month to discuss any pending legal issues. After that, he said, the plan will likely be to hire a professional engineer to come up with design ideas to make repairs.
One option on some of the dams might be to simply lower them to below 20 feet, which means the DNR would no longer have jurisdiction of those structures and couldn’t require repairs, West said. Other dams are too high and will have to be repaired.
Homeowners will also start looking at forming a conservancy district, which could tax residents who own property on the dams. The taxes would pay to fix the structures and any engineering fees.
Russ Bellar, who developed the housing addition back in the 1990s, has also donated 11 lots in the subdivision to a new nonprofit organization called Hidden Hills Lake Preservation. Another resident donated two other lots.
Any profits made from the sale of the land will help pay for dam maintenance and repairs. West said five lots have so far been sold, generating around $100,000.
Although homeowners are responsible for dam repairs, the county is still in charge of maintaining the road’s that run on top of them. Hunt said the roads are in good shape, and the county will continue to ensure they remain that way.
“Unless the homeowners do something drastic to alter the roads, we don’t have any plans to change anything,” he said. “We intend to keep them open and usable for the homeowners in the subdivision.”