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Under Pressure And Short Of Funds, Mt. Holly Races To Save Star Lake

Despite a half-million dollar donation and years of planning, Mt. Holly may lose a treasured lake. Residents have organized to save Star Lake, a 63-acre body of water that is home to a town recreation area and beach, but they continue to struggle against mounting costs and a threat of closure from state officials.

It all started with an anonymous gift in 2011. The $500,000 gift was intended to reconstruct the dam that holds in Star Lake. About six months after the gift was made, those attending a memorial service for Mt. Holly resident Patricia Nye learned she had made the gift to restore the dam and ultimately save the lake. Ron Unterman is co-chair of the Friends of Star Lake, a committee of the Mount Holly Conservation Trust. He said Pat Nye asked to remain anonymous as long as she was alive. When the announcement was made at her memorial service, Unterman said there was an audible gasp in the room.

"Pat lived on another lake in Mt. Holly," Unterman explained. "She had a beautiful shoreline home on Lake Ninevah. She probably rarely, if ever, used Star Lake but she told us that she wanted to help with the dam restoration because she understood its value to our whole town, and how much she cared for all of her friends and neighbors here in Mt. Holly."

Credit Ron Unterman / Friends of Star Lake
Friends of Star Lake
The first wooden dam that created this Mt. Holly lake was built in the 1790s.

The Friends of Star Lake have been working for years to design a new dam and continue to fundraise for the project. The plan was to start construction this spring, but the state rejected the designs for a new dam. Now organizers are working on new plans, but the latest design will cost tens of thousands of dollars more. And the pressure is on, with the state threatening to take out the dam and drain the lake if it's not replaced soon.

Brigid Sullivan is president of the Mt. Holly Conservation Trust. She sent out a project update and fundraising plea in December. She wrote, "Due to changes in the dam design required by the state, the awesome $500,000 gift by the late Patricia Nye is no longer enough to complete the project ... We will be raising funds well into next year."

Sullivan outlined an update she received from project engineers at Dubois & King. She said the state rejected the plans for two reasons:

First, they would not accept using Lake St. as one of two emergency spillways although it has functioned that way previous flood events.
In our effort to design around Lake St. the 1000-year flood event would have raised Star Lake above its current hydrological forecasts which would have triggered an easement issue around the Lake.
D&K had come up with an excellent alternative called an “overtopping dam” which essentially does what has historically been the case, but controls the water away from Lake St.
This modified design incorporates most of the original “drop inlet” design, but very importantly does not raise the lake above historical flood levels, actual and projected.

Sullivan added the modified design will cost somewhere between $50,000 to $90,000 more than the previous design.

"If we cannot raise these funds before spring we will have to delay the repair again," she wrote. "Please keep in mind that the state has already told us that either we repair the dam or it will need to be removed … and drain the lake!"

Another project update and funding plea went out in the January edition of the town newsletter, the Mt. Holly Chit Chat. The article outlined five steps of the project:

  1. Reconstruct the dam to current safety standards as required by the state;
  2. Raise the lake level 18 inches, back to its original elevation;
  3. Dredge the beach and boat launch areas for better swimming & boating;
  4. Create better access to the beach for maintenance equipment;
  5. Upgrade the beach area & boat launch.

Recent fundraising efforts have been met with some success. Unterman said two donations recently came in from California residents who grew up in Mt. Holly. Unterman noted, "They remember well the summer afternoons when as teenagers we all romped in the water at Star Lake beach, and walked the shoreline during breaks in the weekly square dance at the Odd Fellows Hall."
It's those types of memories the project donors and organizers would like to ensure for today's young residents of Mt. Holly.

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