Oct 31, 2016
Wehr's Dam Referendum
Readers of Bill White's Sept. 29 column learned that he felt that having two referendums on one ballot was in itself a problem for both of those questions.
South Whitehall residents will be asked to approve a new library and alsorenovations to Wehr's Dam. White wrote that bringing the dam into state compliance will cost close to $600,000. That's not true, but in fairness to White, that's how the township is presenting the issue.
The state inspection cited only a few minor issues and concluded that overall the dam is in "good condition." Throughout the decades, the township itself would make any required repairs to the dam. Under such an in-house procedure, the current repairs might cost $6,000. Allowing for a professional contractor, the dam repair could cost $60,000 to meet the state requirements.
However, the engineer hired by the township presented three options. Option No. 1 repaired the dam to meet state guidelines. Option No. 2 replaced one-third of the dam for $600,000. Option No. 3 would replace the entire dam at close to $2 million. While the three options allowed the township commissioners to present option No. 2 as a reasonable compromise, it is actually a deception that could do away with the dam. There is nothing in the state report even remotely suggesting that any portion of the dam itself needs to be replaced. It was the township's intention to come up with a price high enough to justify a referendum. Already, four years ago, the township's Park Master Plan, mostly formulated with input from the Wildlands Conservancy, recommended that the dam be demolished, but not for any structural problem. The cost to meet the state requirement should not be confused with some contrived replacement recommendation.
White went on to write that the dam rehabilitation would stretch over five years, and that it would add $76 to the average homeowner's bill. Once again, he was led astray by ambiguous information put out by the township. With over 8,000 properties in the township, that amount would generate $3 million over five years.
However, over a five-year period, it would cost homeowners only $17 a year to generate the $600,000 — something the township later acknowledged in a long note — a series of 13 questions and answers — to property owners inserted in their trash bills. With that note, I believe the township attempted to intimidate the voters against preserving the dam. The note does not state that it would cost $17 a year for five years until the 11th question.
South Whitehall chose an unnecessarily expensive option to repair the dam. It did this so residents would vote the dam away. The dam, considered low-hazard by the state, is a massive concrete structure, 6 feet wide at the bottom and sitting on an even more massive concrete platform. Unattended, it will last for another century. While no longer providing water energy for a grain mill, it is now a historical structure of charm, providing a beautiful sight as water flows over the dam and under the covered bridge.
South Whitehall's park policy is being driven by the Wildlands Conservancy and its general objection to dams, regardless of their significance. Wehr's Dam has been a destination for generations of residents and is the heart of the township's Covered Bridge Park. Although the recently released township magazine has a picture of the covered bridge on the cover, there is not one word about the dam or referendum. The township hopes that residents will reject the contrived, inflated price and tax assigned to preserving the dam and relieve the commissioners of any political consequence for that decision.
Ironically, White's column explains that the new library would contain a local history room. I can tell readers after attending all the township meetings for almost a year that the commissioners could care less about history. History starts with saving local structures, not misleading the public about preservation costs to justify unnecessary demolition. I urge South Whitehall residents to vote to keep the beauty and history of the dam, and then challenge the commissioners about the real cost of any necessary repairs.
Above is my op-ed piece, as it appeared in the Morning Call on Saturday.
ADDENDUM: An article in today's Morning Call on the referendum serves the Wildlands Conservancy well, as do the South Whitehall Commissioners. It doesn't mention that there was an economical third option, to just repair the dam.