A repair to the Lake Forrest Dam could be coming within 31 months – and require a year-long closure of Lake Forrest Drive – as the city of Sandy Springs approved a design contract while facing lawsuits from two of the dam’s private owners.

A design contract was approved an Oct. 1 City Council meeting, where some council members were concerned about the dam’s private owners not paying for any part of the project. City staff and Mayor Rusty Paul say waiting any longer is not an option.

“They should be responsible for their portion and share,” District 5 Councilmember Tibby DeJulio said of the private owners.

“This body has to step up for public safety,” Paul said. “We will shoot the wounded after the war is over.”

According to City Attorney Dan Lee, two lawsuits have been filed from two dam owners being represented by the same attorney.

Lee says the owners, Sara Lambeth and Spencer Lambeth; and Anthony Smith and Mitra Smith sued a couple of months ago. The city plans to file a motion to have the lawsuits dismissed, Lee said. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Martin Shelton, did not have immediate comment.

No one from The Three Lakes Corporation, a homeowners’ association that is among the owners, spoke publicly during the Oct. 1 meeting. Todd Rinck, president of the corporation, declined to comment.

The state Safe Dams Program ordered repairs of the dam nearly ten years ago because it is on the state’s list of “high-hazard” dams, meaning that if it failed in a worst-case scenario, the flood would likely kill people downstream.

The design contract, which was delayed for a vote at a Sept. 17 meeting following neighbor complaints about a lack of a briefing, was awarded to Schnabel Engineering for $756,800.

The proposed design will repair the dam, which runs directly beneath the 4600 block of Lake Forrest Drive. The new design would create a spillway — a passage for surplus water — under the road and refill the lake, which is now partly drained.

According to city staff, the design process will take about eight months; an Environmental Protection Division review and permitting will take about four months; a land acquisition process will take about four months; and construction will take about fifteen months.

The project’s design and construction is estimated to cost $4.8 million. That does not include the right of way and temporary construction easements needed from nearby residents, which have yet to be determined, city staff says.

The cities of Atlanta and Sandy Springs have agreed to split the cost of the project, because the dam rests on the cities’ border. But there are a total of five entities that own the dam, including the Three Lakes Corporation and two private owners who are separate from the corporation.

That raised a concern with DeJulio, who says all owners need to be responsible for sharing the cost.

“Do they have no responsibility here?” DeJulio asked.

District 2 Councilmember Chris Burnett agreed with DeJulio’s sentiments, emphasizing that the dam owner’s property values will increase significantly upon completion of the project.

“Clearly, you have got 33 owners that will measurably benefit from the project,” Burnett said. “Particularly since, other than the roadbed, this lake is not usable to any resident in Sandy Springs other than those that live on the lake.”

“The roadway is paramount,” said City Attorney Dan Lee. “We must move immediately to save the road from collapse. That, and downstream property owner safety.”

Lee said the city can seek to recoup for the cost of the project, but it will be up to the council’s discretion whether they will want to seek later contribution.

“I do not know if the city will have to pay or if they are going to sue owners,” Lee said. “But we cannot push this back any more.”

Paul said the discussion can continue for owner contribution later, but right now, the city must take action to repair the dam in the interest of public safety.

“If we do nothing and that dam fails, then we have a catastrophic loss of Lake Forrest Drive,” Paul said.

“If we wait to seek the contribution now, we will never meet the [Georgia Environmental Protection Agency] standards,” Lee said. “The fight is going to be extended, without a doubt.”

Lake Forrest Drive closure

The construction will require Lake Forrest Drive to be closed for approximately 12 months, according to city staff.

District 1 Councilmember John Paulson expressed concern with the closure and said city staff needs to convey to the engineers to make the closure as short as possible.

District 5 Councilmember Andy Bauman said the downstream impact both visually and environmentally for residents needs to be limited as much as possible by preserving wildlife, fauna and aesthetics, as it is a “raw” deal for them.

“We are no longer able to avoid, but I hope we minimize and mitigate through this design process and we remain engaged with those property owners,” Bauman said.

The approval of the design contract passed unanimously.

This story has been updated with additional information. 

Hannah Greco is writer and media communications specialist based in Atlanta.