Swans swim alongside one of the dams in Hidden Hills, north of Peru. CNHI News Indiana photo
Swans swim alongside one of the dams in Hidden Hills, north of Peru. CNHI News Indiana photo
PERU — The owners of six dams in a subdivision near Peru will no longer have to make major repairs after legislators amended state code that takes jurisdiction of the structures away from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR first sent letters in 2013 to more than 20 landowners in the Hidden Hills subdivision near Peru, saying they had failed to maintain the structures and keep them in safe condition.

That led to a seven-year legal battle between the homeowners, the DNR and Miami County government, which was responsible for the roads that ran on top of some of the dams.

The Indiana Court of Appeals ended up ruling in 2020 that the homeowners were fully responsible for the dam maintenance, and the county was only responsible for the roads on top of them.

However, due to Senate Bill 269, the DNR no longer has jurisdiction over the Hidden Hills dams, which means the agency can no longer dictate how the structures are repaired or maintained.

Larry West, a former Miami County commissioner who owns property on one of the dams, said the cost to make repairs underneath DNR regulations would have been up to $4 million. Now, maintenance costs will run at around $100,000.

“We’re going to do what has to be done, and not just satisfy a big wish list from the DNR,” West said.

Under the state’s former regulations, dams fell under DNR jurisdiction if they met one of three criteria: the drainage area above the dam is more than 1 square mile; the dam exceeds 20 feet in height; or the dam impounded a volume of more than 100 acre-feet of water.

The amended statute now requires that dams meet two of those criteria to fall under DNR’s jurisdiction. West said the legislation lines up with nearly every other state.

He said the Hidden Hills dams are over 20 feet high but don’t fit the other criteria set out in the amended regulations, which means the DNR no longer has jurisdiction over the structures. It also means that the DNR loses jurisdiction of around 300 other dams across Indiana.

“The dams that this legislation helps are the small ponds that the DNR has completely overreacted on,” West said.

The law comes after West submitted a proposal for the changes to Rep. Ethan Manning (R-Logansport) and Sen. Stacey Donato (R-Logansport), both of whom represent Miami County. The bill was first approved by the Senate Natural Resources Committee and was approved last month with near-unanimous support by both the Senate and House. The law takes effect July 1.

West said he had first submitted his suggestions in 2018, but the House Natural Resources Committee didn’t take it up for a vote due to the ongoing legal battle between homeowners, the county and the state.

Now, with the amendments approved, all the dam owners in Hidden Hills are taking a “big sigh of relief,” he said.

However, questions still remain on whether the DNR could end up enforcing certain repairs.

The legislation says that changes to the law do not affect past inspections. West said they are unsure if that might provide a way for the agency to still enforce its previous inspections for 2013. He said as it stands, they don’t anticipate the DNR will continue to pursue jurisdiction of the dams.

“We don’t really know for sure,” he said. “We don’t think they will, but we may end up back in court again if they try and do something.”

West said the subdivision has the funding to make repairs on the dams now that the costs have dropped dramatically.

He said Russ Bellar, who developed the housing addition back in the 1990s, has donated over 45 unsold lots to the new nonprofit Hidden Hills Lake Preservation, which West founded during the legal dispute. He said any profits made from the sale of the land will help pay for dam maintenance and repairs.

The homeowners are also forming a conservancy district that could tax residents in order to have a funding mechanism for future repairs or maintenance. West said if the donated lots generate enough revenue, the district may not have to approve any new taxes.
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