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No longer lakefront living: Residents speak out about damaged dam

No longer lakefront living: Residents speak out about damaged dam

Sky-high prices and steep insurance rates are among the many high costs of living on the water, but some residents living in a small lakefront community off Chemstrand Road are paying the price with little benefit.

Living on the water is a dream for many people, a dream turned reality for Jim Fiveash and his wife, Sara.

"It's the same sign that is out there now," said Jim, speaking about their handmade neighborhood sign. "Except I think some of the letters have fallen off one side of it."

A few missing letters aren't the only change at Willowbrook Lake. This "lakefront community" looks very different now from when Jim and Sara bought their home 43 years ago.

The lake, once stocked with brim and catfish, is now a swamp-filled with mosquitoes and snakes.

"It's totally ruined," said Jim.

The water level was lowered for dam repairs in 2014, then flooding in 2015 caused serious damage, but because the dam was already in disrepair, it didn't qualify for funding from FEMA or the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

"I think they've put us on the back burner," said Jim. "Taking care of what they consider more important stuff."

Wes Moreno with Escambia County Public Works said the project has been slow to start because at first it was private property, and the county couldn't touch it. However, documents show Jim and his neighbor gave the county an easement more than two years ago.

"We gave them 100 feet there, and she gave them 100 feet of her property down there," said Jim. "There's no excuse from that standpoint."

"Anytime we're dealing with environmental agencies and wetland delineation, it can get a little drug out sometimes," said Moreno.

The next step, according to Moreno, is getting permits approved.

"We're not too far off from getting the Army Corps permit, which will allow us to take it to 100 percent design, then out to bid," said Moreno.

The county's plan is to demolish the existing dam and reconstruct it with the addition of an emergency overflow structure, which would prevent something like this from happening again.

"It'll have a large concrete structure in the middle of the dam, so if we have another flood, rather than everything trying to funnel through one pipe or one box culvert, it can overwhelm and it can roll over the concrete," said Moreno.

If everything goes to plan, Moreno said they'll begin construction in August. For Jim, who has gotten used to his lack of a lakefront view, that's not soon enough.

"What you see here is everything in the world that is detrimental to enjoying yourself in your own yard," said Fiveash.

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