'It's good for everybody': New owner, state money make Woodlake Dam restoration a real possibility

VASS, N.C. (WTVD) -- The floodgates may soon open for the success of a once-maligned corner of Moore County.

"The previous owner really gave this place a bad name," Charlie Jones, a resident in the Woodlake development near Vass, told ABC11. "This has been the focus of a good percent of our time trying to fix this problem, and it was a fixable problem, and now it has a good chance of being fixed."

The problem, of course, was the Woodlake Dam, which nearly breached during Hurricane Matthew and was mired in years of mismanagement and neglect.

More than five years after the storm, however, the dam and development's new owner Keith Allison is changing the narrative with his own investments of time and money: he's already begun restoring golf courses and parks, and he's successfully lobbied state lawmakers to include $9.6 million in the state budget to restore the dam.

"It's good for everybody. There are no losers here," Allison told ABC11. "There's flood mitigation, there's economic development, there's more tax revenue coming into the counties."

An ABC11 I-Team investigation confirmed that history of negligence on the part of the past and current owners and a failure on the part of the NC Department of Environmental Quality to enforce the many Dam Safety Orders and notices delivered during the last decade.

As the I-Team also reported, the risk of impending breach forced the DEQ and FEMA to bring in pumps to drain the lake and reduce pressure on the failing dam. The result has been the disappearance of Woodlake and its wildlife, which was the desired spot for waterfront properties.

Downstream, meanwhile, the lack of a dam meant no flood mitigation during Hurricane Florence, when the deluge of rainfall led to historic flooding in nearby Spring Lake.

"They're our neighbors," Jones said. "It turned into water in, water out. Whatever fell, accumulated, it just got pushed right downstream. It impacted a lot of homes, 690, Spring Lake, and parts of Fort Bragg."

Allison assumed control through Woodlake's foreclosure last year, and has promised tens of millions of dollars in investment to the Sandhills, which he added should play an integral part of North Carolina's pursuit of big employers such as Apple and Toyota.

"The Sandhills community is only really 45 minutes away from these new projects that are going on in the outliers in the Raleigh communities," Allison said. "Pinehurst, as well, the US Open will make this a regular stop."

Restoration Timeline

Though Allison was instrumental in lobbying lawmakers on Woodlake's behalf, residents like Jones also put up cash to retain an engineering firm that offered designs and cost estimates on the dam, thus giving lawmakers something more tangible to work with.

Still, there may be challenges in that the $9.6 million estimate did not account for the historic inflation affecting prices on both materials and labor.

"Construction, in general, has gone up 20-30%," Allison said. "Hopefully that will recede some and we'll still be on our timeline."

According to Allison, it will take a year to gain the proper permits from state regulators then bid out contracts for the dam. It will then take another year for construction.

"It's not something I've done lately, which is build a dam," he said. "Our staff is working hard on it. I'll say that."

Despite the potential for good news now, the saga is also a warning to communities across North Carolina: Woodlake is one of more than 2,200 privately-owned and maintained dams in North Carolina (there are more than 6,000 total). Some dams are much larger than others, but they all hold a significant amount of water and could pose significant dangers if they were to ever give way.

In fact, there are 1,483 dams considered by the State of North Carolina as "High Hazard," meaning there are roads, infrastructure or buildings located downstream or in proximity to the dam that would be adversely affected or could cause loss of life if the dam fails.
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