During her testimony Wednesday, June 25, at the Department of Natural Resources’ hearing, Susan Richardson summed up the sense of loss felt by residents on the former Little Hope Mill Pond.
“It was a picture postcard setting,” Richardson said, as she showed before-and-after photos of what was once a shoreline.
“We invested thousands of dollars to improve our lake shore, which no longer exists,” she said.
Richardson described watching turtles laying eggs in her yard, the beauty of the four seasons, the memories she had coming to the area as a child. All that has been lost, she said.
Phyllis Hunt, who has lived in Little Hope for 35 years, also brought before-and-after photos.
One photo shows a waterfront dock that her family once used for launching their canoe. Another photo shows the same dock surrounded by weeds and no water.
“Now, I have a dock to nowhere,” Hunt said. “We had 100 feet of waterfront. Now, there’s absolutely no water at all.”
After the pond receded, it left behind a wide swath of silt between her home and the river channel, leaving her without access to the water.
“I stuck a stick down into it and it’s just muck. You can’t even walk on it,” Hunt said.
Forming a lake district
His neighbors’ concerns about losing their mill pond motivated Dayton Town Chairman Chris Klein to establish a lake district.
Klein testified that the drawdown had not affected his property to the extent as it has his neighbors.
“I can walk out to the water,” Klein said. “I don’t have the muck and silt problems that the other Little Hope residents do.”
However, he said the mill pond and the Red Mill are a significant part of the community’s heritage and a major tourist attraction for the county.
“I had discussed forming a lake district with residents in 2011, after receiving the first report from Waupaca County concerning the dam,” Klein said.
He noted that initially, the Little Hope Lake District included a wider area than the approximately 50 riparian property owners who are now in the district.
At a public hearing in October 2012, Klein presented a lake district with about 280 parcels and boundaries that included the subdivisions on Waletta Drive in the northwest and Old Mill Run in the northeast, as well as the homes on Lake Solitude and the subdivision off East Road. It went as far west as Parfreyville United Methodist Church.
At the hearing, Klein said he included Lake Solitude in the Little Hope Lake District because “drawing down the mill pond would also affect the ground water levels of those properties.”
After more than 100 people came to the public hearing to voice their opposition, Klein and the Dayton Town Board redrew the boundaries and removed about 100 parcels.
In October 2013, the boundaries were again revised to include only riparian property owners along the mill pond.
However, the new boundaries have not been updated with the county’s register of deeds, which prompted the county to file a lawsuit in May seeking summary judgment regarding the lake district’s legal status.
An earlier lawsuit, filed by riparian property owners who are still within the district and oppose the dam, questioned the legality of the lake district’s election of board members.
Their civil complaint alleges that Klein committed “election fraud” by not allowing all eligible property owners to vote at a Nov. 9, 2013, special meeting of the lake district electors.
At that meeting, Klein allowed only one vote to be cast per property, rather than allowing all property owners to vote.
At the June 25 hearing, Klein said the Dayton Town Board legally constituted the Little Hope Lake District.
Although Judge Raymond Huber ordered in November 2013 that the “previous officers continue to serve until the election challenge is decided,” Klein said, “There is no order that stops the lake district from taking action.”
Barriers to communication
Klein described his frustration in trying to negotiate with the county regarding transfer of the dam.
“I have made numerous attempts to discuss transfer or conditions with Waupaca County,” Klein said. “I’ve been unable to speak with anyone at the county.”
When he tried to contact county board members, the chairman of the Parks and Rec Committee and others regarding the dam, Klein said he received an email, notifying him that all communications with the county should go through Jeff Siewert, the county’s corporation counsel.
Klein said he had wanted amicable discussions with the county regarding the dam.
“Either the judge orders a transfer of the license, or we could try to sit down and work things out,” Klein said.
“I don’t think I have the authority to order a transfer with an unwilling seller,” said Jeffrey Boldt, the administrative law judge overseeing the hearing.
Costs to rebuild
Although a dam engineer from the DNR testified that rebuilding the Little Hope dam could cost up to $1 million, Klein believes it will cost significantly less.
“I’ve had a recognized dam engineer out to look at the dam site,” Klein said.
He estimated it would cost $250,000 to $300,000 to rebuild the dam.
Klein said he is “quite certain” that the lake district or the town can obtain a DNR grant to cover about half the cost of building a new dam.
After noting that the riparian owners in the district are not the only ones who would benefit from the mill pond’s restoration, Klein said, “The town or the lake district would be able to create a special assessment.”
Klein said state law allows a municipality to borrow up to 5 percent of its total assessed value.
Klein believes a hydroelectric power generator could also help cover some of the dam’s maintenance costs. For this reason, the lake district is seeking access to a culvert located under County Road K.
The culvert is currently covered by metal plates. At one time, however, it was a channel that fed water into the mill.