By Maggie Lee

Its waters may look tranquil, but the pond on Lake Forrest Drive is contained by a ”high-hazard” earthen dam, the ownership of which has become a contentious issue.

The trees undermining a high-hazard earthen dam near Chastain Park need to be cut down, say state regulators.

But it won’t happen until a Fulton County judge assigns ownership to one or more reluctant parties: homeowners, the county, Sandy Springs or Atlanta.

It’s a case that can easily happen as neighborhoods age or a homeowners association goes dormant.

“I’m dragged into this kicking and screaming,” says avowedly angry Sandy Springs property owner Albert Longman. “I’ve had to get an attorney.”

For a few years, Longman and his wife have owned land on Lake Forrest Drive below the so-called Three Lakes Dam (also called the Lake Forrest Dam). The approximately 60-year-old structure escaped regulation until 2009, when a periodic state evaluation found that if the dam failed, it could flood a residence. That potential loss of life put the dam in the “high-hazard” category and meant that someone must admit to owning it and keeping it safe.

So in 2009, Longman received a letter he called “surprising.” The state Safe Dams Program was pinning ownership on him and his wife. What the letter didn’t say, however, was that the state was fishing for an owner by sending duplicate letters to the cities of Sandy Springs and Atlanta, Fulton County, a lakeside homeowners association and several of the Longmans’ below-dam neighbors.

Three Lakes is complicated. The city line between Sandy Springs and Atlanta appears to cut the lake, and Lake Forrest Drive, possibly with a county or city right-of-way, tops the dam.

But drawing in many parties is actually the state’s normal response to a familiar problem – establishing ownership of high-hazard earthen dams in residential areas.

Active HOAs own most such Northside dams, but if that legal entity fades away or ignores the state, or there’s no HOA at all, the problem appears.

When Tera Lee Lake dam in Sandy Springs was built around 1958, neighbors voluntarily contributed money for upkeep, according to testimony in state records. But the family that used to administer the agreement sold out more than 10 years ago.

So in January 2008, four families around the dam received state notices that Tera Lee had been classified as a high hazard. Each letter included a blank application for a permit to operate a high-hazard dam and a request to fill it out and return it. Only one neighbor has followed the unexpected request, but listed the owner as “unknown.”

Today, Safe Dams is still urging the Tera Lee neighbors to take ownership of the dam and get to work clearing encroaching brush. If no one listens, Safe Dams can bring them to the attention of the state attorney general – a Roswell subdivision is there now for ignoring the state’s maintenance demands.

The Three Lakes case landed in front of the law much more quickly. When the city of Sandy Springs got one of those Safe Dams letters, city attorney Wendell Willard took the letter, the city, Atlanta, Fulton County and the lake neighbors to a county judge.

They’re “all the potential parties who have an interest, ownership or otherwise, in the dam,” explained Willard, who is also Sandy Springs’ state representative. “We’re asking for a declaratory judgment,” he added – simply a finding of ownership.

“Whoever has ownership is responsible for repairs,” Willard concluded.

He’s not seen a precedent in five years of Sandy Springs independence, but a similar case was settled across the county line when the state first started inspecting dams.

Silver Lake near Oglethorpe University predates most of the houses around it by decades. But when its circa-1911 dam was pulled down by the state in 1978 on the grounds of disrepair, neighbors organized to rebuild their beloved lake. Research suggested a university-linked foundation might own the dam and land, or perhaps a defunct developer.

Lake-lovers cut the legal knot by forming a nonprofit and obtaining the land title as a donation. Today the Silver Lakes Civic Association – which counts individuals and HOAs among its members – still owns and maintains the lake and dam.

Back at Three Lakes, the lakeside HOA admits it owns the lake, but is not owning up to the dam. They want to cooperate in repairs, but, according to a court filing by president Michael Balser, “we are looking to the city of Sandy Springs to provide leadership in establishing a group to respond to this problem.”

The Three Lakes case may finish this year, but there’s no guarantee. Plaintiffs and defendants have until Nov. 15 to file any newly discovered data with the court, according to the case file. After that, the court will accept briefs, then the cities, county and neighbors will wait on the judge’s decision.