ODNR breaches dam in Austintown despite reluctance from neighbors

Local News

Neighbors say it didn't have to happen this way, but the Ohio Department of Natural Resources says they had no choice

AUSTINTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – On Friday, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ work breaching the Woodside Lake dam in Austintown wrapped up, but what’s left has community leaders and neighbors concerned.

“People that know me, know this is part of my life,” said neighbor George Berick.

Berick gets emotional talking about the past 22 years he’s spent living on Woodside Lake.

“This is where my kids grew up,” he said.

A disheartening realization looking at what the lake is now — a drained, smelly and muddy eyesore.

“Now that the reality is here, this is what people are waking up to every day instead of our birds and our fish. It’s a little more serious now,” Berick said.

ODNR had been saying for years that the private dam was a liability because its sudden failure would cause severe flooding, but there was no concrete ownership to make the necessary changes.

So, here’s how we got here today:

  • In March 2017, James Salter bought Woodside Lake at a sheriff’s sale for just $50.
  • A month later, ODNR issued a notice of violation to Salter, requiring him to bring the dam into safety compliance.
  • In June, ODNR issued another compliance notice.
  • With still no efforts being made, ODNR requested that the Ohio attorney general enforce the order.
  • Nearly a year later with no action being taken to fix the dam, the attorney general filed a complaint against Salter in the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.
  • In September 2018, the court issued an order requiring Salter to either repair, breach or modify the dam by Oct. 15, 2019 — which never happened — giving ODNR the right to take necessary action if Salter did not comply.
  • In December 2019, ODNR visited the dam and said its condition had worsened.
  • So, ODNR started to breach the dam in October 2020 and the project wrapped up on Friday.

“A lot of neighbors were still in trust that the local officials and the county, the state, some group was going to come out of somewhere and save it,” Berick said.

“The neighbors and myself, we were all under the assumption that enough of it would be left up that there would be a pond left in the center so that the wildlife would not all die,” said Mahoning County commissioner David Ditzler.

That is not the case. Thousands of fish and mussels are still in the drained lake — some too far to get, but some being rescued by the community.

“Making sure that they get to somewhere and aren’t just suffering until they die,” said one of the people rescuing the fish, Anthony Precurato.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife says crews did their best to save as many critters from the lake as possible.

“It was not saved, it is going to be up to the owners to do something about it,” Berick said.

Berick says the homeowners are now figuring out if they can rebuild the lake and dam themselves.

“Its just a sad situation and a lot of people are involved and a lot of people are going to be impacted from it,” Ditlzer said.

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