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2/9/2019 5:45:00 PM
Longtime legal battle over Miami County dams heading to Marion County
Swans swim alongside one of the dams in Hidden Hills, north of Peru. Land owners and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources are at odds over who should repair and maintain the unpermitted, and unsafe, dams. Staff file photo by Kelly Lafferty
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Swans swim alongside one of the dams in Hidden Hills, north of Peru. Land owners and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources are at odds over who should repair and maintain the unpermitted, and unsafe, dams. Staff file photo by Kelly Lafferty

Carson Gerber, Kokomo Tribune

PERU – A five-year legal battle between residents in a subdivision near Peru and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources [DNR] over six deteriorating dams is heading to a Marion County court.

A civil division in Marion Superior Court is set to hear a plea from the dam/house owners in Hidden Hills near Peru, who are asking the judge to overturn a decision by the DNR requiring them to spend up to $1 million to fix the structures.

An administrative law judge with the Indiana Natural Resource Commission issued a final ruling in June for more than 20 property owners in the Hidden Hills subdivision, saying the property owners were responsible for fixing the dams. 

The judge also ruled the Miami County Board of Commissioners is partially responsible for five of the dams, since roads maintained by the county run on top of them.

The DNR sent out letters in October 2014 telling the landowners they had failed to maintain the structures and keep them in safe condition. The letter was also sent to the board of commissioners.

Since then, the property owners have spent years fighting the decision, arguing the dams don’t meet the specifications that would put the structures under the jurisdiction of the DNR.

The property owners first turned to a Miami County judge to stay the order and overturn the DNR decision in a last-ditch effort to avoid paying what could be up to $1 million to fix the dams.

The Miami County judge recused himself from the case, which sent it to Howard Superior Court II Judge Brant Parry, who in December handed the case off to the Marion County court after the DNR filed an appeal there.

Since then, the Hidden Hills dam owners and the Miami County commissioners have filed briefs with the court, which has extended the time allowed to accept legal briefs until April 15.

Miami County Commissioner Larry West, who owns property on one of the dams, said he now hopes the case will finally be decided, one way or the other, by the end of the year.

He said if the ruling isn’t overturned, estimates show it could cost landowners between $750,000 and $1 million to fix the structures. But whether the court will decide to overturn the administrative law judge’s decision is very much up in the air, West said.

“I’m hopeful, but realistically, I don’t know,” he said.

In case the ruling isn’t overturned, property owners in the subdivision are now considering forming a conservancy district that could tax residents there to help pay for the repairs or take out a bond to fund the project, West said.

West has also created a nonprofit organization called Hidden Hills Lake Preservation, which aims to preserve the lakes and maintain the dams there. He said the property developer has donated 11 lots in the subdivision, and any profits made from the sale of the land will help pay for dam maintenance and repairs.

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