For five years, the lake's dam has been deemed as unsafe by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. GDNR Safe Dams Program Manager Tom Woosley said it's the responsibility of Vinings Building Group, which owns the land where the dam rests, to bring it into compliance.
But Woosley and nearby residents in the wealthy east Cobb area said VBG President Guy Cherwonuk has continuously avoided repairing the dam, to the point that they believe he removed the lake's vertical riser pipe last Friday night, causing the water to drain and homeowners near Cochran Lake Road and Stone Drive to wake up Aug. 7 to an empty lake and thousands of dead fish.
Though Cherwonuk gave a very brief comment to the Journal on Thursday, follow-up requests for comments went unreturned. Therefore, the Journal could not confirm from Cherwonuk if he had indeed taken such action.
"The middle of the lake there was once 30 feet deep," resident Jackie Guthrie said, as she stood on her back deck and pointed to a mud pit that was once Cochran Lake. "Now, it's maybe five. My sons and their friends spent ten, eleven hours Saturday just casting nets, doing what they could to save whatever fish they could and move them in wheelbarrows over to the other lake. And they saved a lot. But now we have the build-up of years of frustrating battles with Mr. Cherwonuk, a dam that's falling apart, an empty lake and thousands of rotting fish. It's sad. The whole thing's just sad."
Woosley said, "Mr. Cherwonuk was told he would need to lower the lake seven feet to repair the dam, but we were not aware that he was going to remove the entire riser pipe. If you have to lower the lake seven feet, then you would just cut the riser pipe seven feet down. But the pipe was removed completely, so the water then flows into the horizontal pipe and thus causes the lake to drain. Draining the lake didn't do anything to keep him from repairing the dam. That work still has to be done."
Woosley said any action on the dam, including replacing the spillway, would have to be approved by GDNR prior to repairs. He said plans were submitted in 2005, but Cherwonuk pulled them soon after and no others have been submitted since. Woosley said he was not sure why the plans were pulled.
Giving a short comment over the phone Thursday, Cherwonuk said, "We did have a plan to repair it and one of the owners of the dam had an attorney put us on notice saying that they wanted $50,000 to repair the dam."
Former resident Jim Guthrie, who lived on the lake for 18 years until 2006, helped explain what Cherwonuk was talking about. He said resident Earl Snyder requested Cherwonuk pay him $50,000 in return for permanently encroaching on his land to install a spillway. However, Guthrie said the request was pulled soon after it was made, and no such requests have been made since to prevent Cherwonuk from repairing the dam.
After providing the comment Thursday, Cherwonuk said he would talk with the Journal Friday, but instead just emailed some court documents he has filed, and did not return requests for comments. According to the court documents, Cherwonuk believes he should not have to pay for the repairs in full as the primary spillway is located on Jim Guthrie's property, and Snyder owns property where the emergency spillway is located.
But Jim Guthrie said the spillway does not prevent Cherwonuk from repairing the dam. Further, Jim Guthrie said, if he needed to come onto the property for any reason while fixing the dam, Cherwonuk had been given full permission to do so.
After years of missed deadlines and violations of orders issued to Cherwonuk by the courts and GDNR, Woosley said the state is still in litigation with Cherwonuk to force him to repair the dam. The dam is overgrown with trees, brush and thick vegetation, has inadequate spill capacity, and was greatly damaged by last September's flood, Woosley said.
Cherwonuk and VBG applied in 2005 to rezone a portion of the property that existed in an area that was under the lake neighborhood's homeowners' association restrictions, which would remove its membership from the HOA. The request was to rezone the land so it could be broken up into lots for homes to be built on. Several residents showed support for the rezoning, as long as Cherwonuk and his group agreed to fix the dam before any land disturbance permits were to be issued.
The zoning ordinance was passed on July 19, 2005, with the stipulations requested by the homeowners. Jim Guthrie, who spoke at the Cobb Board of Commissioners zoning hearing, said Cherwonuk signed an agreement with the homeowners that he would abide by the same stipulations set forth by the county prior to the hearing so that they would show their support for the zoning change. But Cherwonuk decided to revert the land back to its old zoning, which was granted in 2007 without any notice given to homeowners, Jim Guthrie said. As a result, Cherwonuk advised the homeowners that his previous agreement was null and void since he would no longer be using the property for new lots and homes. Jim Guthrie said.
Today, VBG's subdivision, known as Brooke Falls, contains 18 lots, some with homes being built or already built, with prices ranging more than $750,000.
Resident Grace Tippit said the homeowners association has $500,000 in available funds to pay for the cost of repairing the dam. Tippit said neighbors have even agreed to take on the liability of the dam if Cherwonuk would sign a contract stating he would use the money solely to repair the dam, but Cherwonuk will not sign the agreement.
Resident Andy Knaebel said, "We're going to end up losing the county funding if he can't help us understand what the objections are, but so far, he's been unresponsive and remains defiant, blaming and deflecting. All we ask is just to communicate and work with us. We've sent email after email after email saying we want to help and can work together to secure funding for the repairs; we just want to be assured the money will be spent to repair the dam. Even with the lake draining, he has all of our contact information. If he was going to do it, let us know beforehand so maybe we could have saved some of the fish that are now dead and rotting in the middle. If it was an accident, let us know so we can get out there and help however we can. But we never received anything, and since that time we've had no response from him."
Cobb Storm Water Manager Bill Higgins said the county would eventually refill the lake, paid for by the county. Higgins also said he is trying to locate contractors to come out and clean up the dead fish, but said that could cost residents "a couple thousands of dollars."
"It's going to be a while to get the lake up, and we know the lake owners have a vested interest in getting the fish out and the water back in," Higgins said.
Tippit said, "We're trying, but we're exhausted. We all have jobs; we're not investigators, but we're doing everything we can to find a way to fix this dam. We just want the dam to be safe and to get our lake back."