Tiverton dam deemed threat to those downhill

Vegetation growing along the Creamer Dam has interferred with inspections, contributing to an "unsafe" classification.
Photo by Richard W. Dionne, Jr. Vegetation growing along the Creamer Dam has interferred with inspections, contributing to an "unsafe" classification. Photo by Richard W. Dionne, Jr.
A map shows the inundation area (in blue) and what DEM says would be the expected path of the released water if Creamer Dam were to fail. An estimated 43 homes would be affected.

A map shows the inundation area (in blue) and what DEM says would be the expected path of the released water if Creamer Dam were to fail. An estimated 43 homes would be affected.

Owners of the 28 lots in Tiverton’s Daniel Church Estates subdivision just got saddled with a big responsibility — caring for a dam that the state considers a “high hazard” and “unsafe.”

After a July 21 special Town Council meeting in the high school auditorium, the owners found themselves on the hook to repair and maintain the 116-year-old earthen dam that lies uphill and just east of Main Road, and is a few hundred yards south of Route 24 and the Sakonnet Bridge off ramp.

The 625-foot Creamer Dam (a Mr. Creamer was a later owner of Mr. Church’s Main Road house) was built by Daniel Church in 1898 (his name is cut into a stone placed atop the dam at about its midpoint) forms the aesthetic and environmental centerpiece of the 25-year-old Daniel Church Estates subdivision.

But unfortunately for the homeowners, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM), in a 2010 report about dam safety in the state, placard the dam on its high hazard list. A dam classified as a “high hazard,” RIDEM said, is “a dam where failure or misoperation will result in a probable loss of human life.”

The classification “is based on what we think would happen if the dam failed suddenly,” said RIDEM’s Senior Sanitary Engineer Paul W. Guglielmino.

“It’s very unlikely that the high hazard classification of the dam would change” as a result of dam maintenance efforts, he said. The classification is based on structural concerns.

The earthen dam, he said, is 5.6 feet tall and holds back a 9-acre pond containing 16.3 million gallons.

The dam is also rated “unsafe”— a different assessment, he said — based on its current condition. An “unsafe dam”  is a “high or significant hazard dam whose condition is such that an unreasonable risk of failure exists.”

daniel church pond1Mr. Guglielmino said there is “so much vegetation on the embankment” and alongside the dam at each end, that a careful inspection of the dam in September 2010 could not be conducted. Only a visual inspection was possible.

It revealed that there was densely growing brush, vines and trees up to six inches in diameter, at one end, trees up to 12 inches in diameter at the other end, and elsewhere several trees up to three feet in diameter.

He said progress is being made on addressing this rating. He said he’d received a telephone message from Louis Cabral, a director of the recently formed Daniel T. Church Estates Homeowners’ Association, saying the owners “are close to clearing” the brush.

Of the “brush-clearing” task ahead, Mr. Cabral told the council “it’s a significant clean-up, it’s something you can’t just go in with a weed-whacker and take care of it. We’ll probably have to bring in some heavy machinery to cut down trees, and we’re going to have to access it through some private entities property. It’s not a simple undertaking.”

At the time he spoke to the council, Mr. Cabral did not know the costs that lie ahead. “We’re working on getting the pricing for the cleanup,” he said.

The council gave the new association 90 days from July 21, “to allow them time to clean up the dam” area, and “to get liability insurance for the dam.”

It set the date of Oct. 20 (the second council meeting in October), to check on progress “so the issue won’t fall through the cracks again,” said Town Solicitor Andrew Teitz.

The town has spent $3,500 already to prevent the sluiceway against getting clogged with debris ($500) and for an emergency management plan ($3,000) should the dam breach, and wants reimbursement from the homeowners.

For years residents there have resisted creating a homeowners’ association.

The subdivision was created in 1989 and, under the terms of each of their recorded deeds, the owners of the lots were all required to comply with 32 deed restrictions.

One of those restrictions called upon the owners to form a non-profit corporation called a Homeowners Association, and register it with the state. One duty of the association, when created, was to enforce all restrictions against the owners.

And among the restrictions is one stating that the association  “shall maintain the pond and make all necessary repairs and improvements and periodic inspections necessary to maintain the pond and its supporting structures including outfalls, drains, and other elements to insure that the pond and its supporting structures remain safe and do not create nuisance or hazard.”

Not until July 10 did the owners finally create the required  Daniel T. Church Homeowners Association. They did so after the town’s Street Advisory Committee recommended that the town stop providing Department of Public Works (DPW) services to the residents along the streets, and not “accept” the streets in the subdivision (they had never been accepted after the subdivision was created in 1989).

Stoppage of services would have meant that residents in the subdivision would no longer receive plowing, sanding, mowing, street sweeping, catch basin cleaning, roadway repairs, and rubbish pickup along their streets, and would have to carry their rubbish to the end of the  road leading into the subdivision.

“It’s been a long time trying to coordinate. Over 20 years,” Mr. Cabral told the counci. “There’s been quite a bit of confusion, lack of information, lack of coordination, and some resistance on the part of several owners. So there hasn’t been a consensus. Over the last 18 months we have been working towards achieving consensus.”

“I apologize to you that it’s not been done sooner. We’ve just reached a point where we’ve decided enough’s enough,” he said later.

Mr. Teitz cast the issue in a different light. “As a practical matter,” he said, “had that dam collapsed in 2010, had the town not stepped in, every homeowner might have been sued and maybe for wrongful death if there was a real flood down the hill.”

The pond is relatively shallow (estimated at 10-15 feet deep), according to neighbors. Much of it is covered with lily pads or duckweed and residents say it is home to snapping turtles and other creatures.

More than one person has said it is was required by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) to serve as a drainage basin for the subdivision and its roads.

None of the residents contacted in Daniel Church Estates would agree to speak on the record about the matter of the dam, and all but one declined to give his or her name.

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