The Sandy Springs City Council approved a consent order on Dec. 15 on the more than 50-year-old Lake Forrest Dam with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources that will lead to an application to rebuild or breach the dam to keep people and property safe.

The dam serves as the foundation of a section of Lake Forrest Drive that creates a common boundary between Sandy Springs and the city of Atlanta. Sandy Springs lowered the water level in 2016 with concurrence by the DNR’s Environmental Protection Division to safeguard people and property downstream of the dam.

A boat lays on the ground in what used to be the pond behind Lake Forrest Dam. (Hannah Greco)

The consent order was chosen by the EPD instead of litigation. It requires the city to monitor the dam and roadway weekly, with reports to the state monthly on the lake level, amount of flow in the principal spillway pipe and noting any signs of cracking in Lake Forrest Drive or seepage from the dam. The inspections must continue until a permit for the dam is approved after repairs.

The EPD also used the consent order to approve further lowering of the lake’s water level performed on April 22, as it “may aid in preventing further deterioration of conditions at the dam.”

In recognition of the lawsuits delaying the construction, the EPD’s consent order requires an immediate report on litigation status 30 days after the order is enacted, and then quarterly until the lawsuits are resolved. 

City staff said in October 209 that EPD review and permitting will take about four months; land acquisition will take about four months; and construction will take about 15 months.

Failing to follow the consent order could make the city liable for up to a $1,000 penalty and $500 per day for any violation until it comes into compliance.

The EPD was unable to comment on the consent order because it had yet to be enacted, EPD spokesperson Kevin Chambers said on Dec. 16.

Repairs were ordered under the state Safe Dams Program 10 years ago. The dam 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 two cities are among the five owners of the dam and have cooperated to study the dam and spillway to safeguard nearby residents and downstream residents and meet the EPD’s compliance requirements. Sandy Springs has taken the lead on the repair planning.

A design contract was awarded to Schnabel Engineering for $756,800 in October 2019 to create a spillway for surplus water under the road. The deterioration of the spillway was identified as a key indicator of the dam’s condition. 

“The problem with this project is that there’s so many property owners and property interests involved that now we have two lawsuits from property owners claiming damage because the water level has been reduced pursuant to an order by EPD, or demand by EPD,” City Attorney Dan Lee said.

This consent order did not specify a deadline, which cleared up a sticking point for Lee. In the order the EPD recognized another consent order it made with the Three Lakes Corp. to cooperate with the cities and to communicate that property owners must allow access to their properties so work on the dam can be completed.

Those other dam owners include the Three Lakes homeowners’ association along the west side of Lake Forrest DRive 

Two homeowners claimed in a lawsuit that dam owners must maintain the original water level.

“Well, Sandy Springs claims they have been working on it for years. It’s apparent they haven’t done anything really at all,” said Spencer Lambeth, one of the homeowners who filed suit against the city in a claim that it hadn’t properly maintained the dam or roadway. “Everybody is adamantly upset that nothing’s been done at all.”

The cities’ consent order with EPD specifies that the water level will be kept low. They must submit an application to breach the dam or a permit to rebuild it. Once litigation is resolved, a permit would be issued to the five dam owners.

“I just want to clarify, the two big takeaways here are we are no longer tied to a calendar. And two, we actually have the option of making Lake Forrest Drive not a dam,” Councilmember Andy Bauman said after entering a motion to enter the consent order.

Bauman said if they deconstruct the dam, which is one of the options, that does not mean tearing down Lake Forrest Drive.

“Lake Forrest Drive will just become a regular old road with a hole that goes through it somewhere to transport water and in a continuous basis,” he said.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.