Politics & Government

Hurricane Matthew breached town’s historic dam. Now, a flood of emotions over its future.

Dispute over Little River dam divides Zebulon community

John Middleswarth, the man who cleaned up the Little River dam area in the 1980's and Zebulon's 2017 Citizen of the Year, talks with sadness about how dispute over FEMA money and the dam has caused such vitriol in his community.
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John Middleswarth, the man who cleaned up the Little River dam area in the 1980's and Zebulon's 2017 Citizen of the Year, talks with sadness about how dispute over FEMA money and the dam has caused such vitriol in his community.

A 150-year-old stone dam across the Little River in Zebulon held back just a few feet of water before it was breached by flooding from Hurricane Matthew,

But the feelings over whether to rebuild the dam run much deeper.

Zebulon asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency in February for more than $815,000 to make improvements to a park around the ruins of the dam. But the town’s plan is to let the structure itself go un-repaired, leaving the free-running river to tumble over the relics.

Some local residents say the town is missing a golden opportunity to preserve a rare bit of rural heritage while adding something new. They argue that federal money should be used to repair the dam, and they say the town should raise additional funds through grants and donations to develop the park.

The argument, which has run on more or less since the dam was breached in October 2016, has caused tense town commission meetings and social media feuding between once-friendly neighbors. Residents who feel their views have been dismissed have planted signs around the eastern Wake County community, used a Facebook page demanding that the town board “Give A Dam” and launched petitions on change.org.

“At first it broke my heart to see that dam after the hurricane,” said John Middleswarth, who has lived in Zebulon for 40 years and who spent uncounted hours in the 1980s picking up trash around the picturesque dam and prying weeds and saplings out of its mortar joints.

The masonry structure, one of tens of thousands built around the country in the 1800s, went up in 1871. It first powered a grist mill, was later used by an ice plant and eventually converted to produce electricity and impound water for Zebulon’s residents to drink.

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A view from behind the dam at Little River Park in Zebulon, N.C. Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. The area pictured left was a pond before rains from Hurricane Matthew caused the river to breach the barrier. Aaron Moody amoody@newsobserver.com

Zebulon now gets its water from Raleigh, so the impoundment is no longer needed, but it added considerable charm to a town established in the early 1900s by prospectors drawn by the promise of a railroad line nearby. By the 1950s, the area around the dam, about 2.3 miles from downtown Zebulon, was being used for recreation, with imported sand serving as a makeshift beach. Older residents say they knew people who were baptized at the site.

More recently, the masonry structure had long been showing its age; Hurricane Fran blew out a section in 1996 and Hurricane Floyd took out chunks three years later. Both times, FEMA and the state paid to bring the dam back to its pre-storm condition, the most the agency is allowed to do after a natural disaster.

‘Just immoral’

So after Hurricane Matthew, Middleswarth said, he too wanted the Little River dam rebuilt.

But as time went on, he said, and he read about how many families in North Carolina still had no permanent home because there wasn’t enough FEMA money to help rebuild their flooded houses, he began to see the possible reconstruction of the dam as a different kind of obstruction.

“With all those people needing housing, rebuilding that dam with public funds is just immoral,” Middleswarth said.

Zebulon Town Manager Joe Moore sees a financial issue, not a moral one, in the dam’s fate. While rainfall from Hurricane Matthew took out only two sections of the stacked-stone dam, “The entire structure is in really bad shape,” he said. “It hasn’t been maintained. You have roots growing through it, mortar joints broken out. It doesn’t really function as a dam anymore.

“FEMA would only repair the parts of the dam that Hurricane Matthew damaged. We would have to repair the rest, or it will fail again when the next big storm comes along.”

The town also would have to pay to maintain, inspect and insure the dam, at a time when its 5,000 or so residents also need road-widening projects, a new fire station and firefighting equipment.

If the dam did fail again, it could damage the N.C. 97 bridge that traverses the river just below the dam as it did when Hurricane Matthew hit, forcing local drivers to detour for miles while months-long repairs were made.

In deciding what to do, the town held a series of public meetings and conducted surveys of local residents at places where they gather. It queried Boy Scouts who came to work in the park, a yoga group whose members stretch on the rocks by the river, shoppers at the town’s farmers market and people who attended Zebulon’s Daffodil Days festival. It surveyed people online, through email lists and Facebook pages.

The town says the surveys indicated that more people wanted to leave the dam breached than wanted it repaired.

Moore recommended — and a majority of the town board voted — to ask for money from a relatively new FEMA disaster funding stream for “alternate projects.” Essentially, the program allows a community to apply for a grant in the amount needed to repair damage from a natural disaster, but the community doesn’t have to spend the money on the repair if it decides that’s not in the public’s best interest.

To apply for the funds, Zebulon commissioned engineering studies and cost estimates as if it were going to repair the dam, and asked FEMA for that amount of money — $815,464.

If approved, FEMA would pay for most of the project and the state would cover the rest.

With that money, Moore said, the town could develop a master plan for the 22-acre Little River Park that eventually would turn it into a regional destination, with an expanded children’s play area, walking and hiking trails, a wetlands boardwalk, preserved forest, open grassy areas, historical and environmental education, picnicking, camping, kayak launch and restroom facilities. People could tube in the river, which would be restored to a free-flowing stream. There would be places to fish and play on the banks.

‘It’s a Dam Shame’

Frank Timberlake has lived in Zebulon for more than three decades and says that, in addition to being the owner of a successful advertising, public relations and marketing firm, he’s a parks guy.

“Not a tree hugger,” he said, “but I’m all about public facilities.”

He’s also about history and heritage, he said, and much of what Zebulon had, it let get away: the circa-1940s Wakelon Theatre in town, the giant trees that lined Gannon Avenue, many of its older homes.

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People assemble on both sides of the flooded bridge on N.C. 97 where the Little River overflow was nearly level with the dam after Hurricane Matthew in Zebulon, N.C. on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. Aaron Moody amoody@newsobserver.com

The Little River Dam, Timberlake said, is a tangible connection to the past that the town should find a way to keep, a position he makes clear on his “It’s a Dam Shame” Facebook page. Commenters there promise to remember their commissioners’ votes on the dam come the next election.

“The dam is the nucleus,” Timberlake said, “the focal point of what would be the park they want to build. If the dam is not saved, the nucleus is gone.”

Timberlake is confident that if the town board were to reverse its vote and elect to use FEMA money to save the structure, it could then secure grants to do the rest of the park development. The difference is, the amenities would be built around a small lake instead of a restored stream, and the photogenic structure would remain.

FEMA has yet to notify Zebulon whether it will get any funding, and with so much damage from Hurricane Matthew still to be repaired across Eastern North Carolina, it’s anybody’s guess whether the money will come. If it does, the town board would could vote to revisit the issue of rebuilding the dam, but so far, no commissioner has suggested doing so in an open meeting.

Whatever happens, John Middleswarth isn’t sure he wants to see it.

“I worked so hard to make that place a nice park where people could come with their families and be together,” he said. “And now, it’s just tearing the town apart.“

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