Lexington dam repairs to bring new amenities, too

Two of Lexington’s biggest ponds, devastated during 2015 floods, could get new dams and upgrades as early as next summer.

Old Mill Pond and Gibson Pond both had complete dam failures during the unprecedented 1,000-year rain in October 2015. Nearly three years later, the ponds remain empty, but officials say they have taken steps recently toward rebuilding both dams.

The co-owner of Old Mill Pond said he recently received initial drawings of the repaired dam from engineers. And the town of Lexington, which owns the Gibson Pond dam, hopes to submit plans for rebuilding it to state officials by Sept. 1.

Standing on the edge of the buzzing pit of greenery that once was the Old Mill Pond, it is easy to forget how expansive a body of water it was. The only reminders of what it used to be are a comparatively small collection of water at the base of the pond and a sign on a post in the mill parking lot that reads “Lexington Water Ski Club” — plus the memories of those who worked in the mill at the time.

Old Mill Pond was a century-old gem in the town of Lexington until its 124-year-old earthen dam broke. Parts of the shopping center and office building adjacent to the pond flooded.

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John Clinger owns Old Mill Brewpub inside the former textile mill. He got the keys to the brewpub in December 2012. Less than three years later, he was sitting in his parked truck, watching the dam collapse and unleash water that washed away part of his business.

Customers have since returned and business at the brewpub is healthy now, after costly repairs — Clinger said he didn’t receive monetary help from his insurance company or from FEMA — but that doesn’t mean people have stopped commenting on the pond, or lack thereof.

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Head brewer Matt Rodgers, 35, has worked at the brewpub since it opened in early 2013. He used to put the beer to brew and jump off the back deck of the pub for a quick swim, he said. He also stored his kayaks on the top of the dam until a week before it broke.

For a while after the 2015 flood, he said, big chunks of the earthen dam would break off and crumble down, “like an iceberg.”

Rodgers said he is looking forward to the dam’s repair because it will bring with it a notable bright side: the opportunity to open his own sustainable brewery, downstairs in the mill in what used to be a boiler room. Hazelwood Brewing, as it will be called, will be one of a few energy-independent breweries in the country, powered almost entirely by a hydro-turbine that works off of pond water.

The brewery, which will operate in conjunction with Old Mill Brewpub, is slated to be open by the end of the year. It will use other energy until the turbine is up and running. Hazelwood will have an outdoor beer garden with water flowing alongside it from the new dam, which will extend toward the front of the building in a gentle slope.

Lexington town officials also plan to create a lit concrete biking and mile-long walking path around the pond. Mayor Steve MacDougall said plans for the walking path have been submitted to DHEC and construction will begin once the pond and dam repairs are finished.

The idea, MacDougall said, is to create a “walkable downtown” that connects points of interest in the area, such as the dog park, amphitheater and Virginia Hylton Park, to the old mill. He said the project will create a vibrant town center to attract visitors and new businesses to the area.

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“There’s going to be a ton of people coming to Lexington to see all the amenities we have,” he said.

The town will fund the walking loop construction, and is coordinating with Old Mill co-owner Laban Chappell.

Chappell said this is his first time figuring out a reconstruction on this scale. His company, Charleston-based High Seas Properties, bought the pond about two years before the flood. Old Mill Pond dam, unlike Gibson, has always been classified as high-hazard, since it runs alongside U.S. 1, so Chappell will have to build it back up to that level.

He wanted to see how flood repairs would play out with FEMA, he said. But Old Mill is private and for-profit, so Chappell decided to pay for the project without assistance from insurance companies or federal agencies. He said he hopes the project will cost no more than $1 million.

Chappell started looking for engineers in March 2017.

“At the outset, looking back on it, I probably would have started a whole lot sooner,” he said.

He got the first round of drawings back from WCC Engineers about two weeks ago. Chappell said his fingers are crossed that he will have a permit by the end of the year, in order to start construction in January. After that, it could take several months (move the earth, armor the dam, sod the armory, let the sod take root, raise the lake), but he hopes the project will be done in time for summer 2019.

The dam at Gibson Pond, which feeds into Old Mill Pond, was re-classified by DHEC as high-hazard after the 2015 storm. That’s the same classification as the Lake Murray dam. One factor in DHEC’s rating is the number of people who might be affected by a dam break.

That “up-classing” means the Town of Lexington must meet stricter requirements, such as ensuring the top of the dam has a hard concrete structure. Before the 2015 flood, many local dams were more than 100 years old, and fortified with permeable earthen materials.

MacDougall said the new Gibson Pond dam will include walking paths along the sides and over the top of the dam, so pedestrians can watch the overflow of water, which MacDougall says is the nicest part. The town council is scheduled to vote on the design on Monday.

Britt Poole, the town’s administrator, said Lexington intends to have its plans to DHEC by Sept. 1. Once DHEC approves the project and issues a permit, the town will search for a construction team and then begin applying for FEMA funds.

The “black hole” of the dam rebuilding process, Poole said, is getting the green light from DHEC.

DHEC could not be reached for comment on how long permitting typically takes.

Poole said he anticipates FEMA will pay for about 75 percent of the $3 to $5 million repair, but the town must apply for funding as it goes, so that percentage may change. Rebuilding could take nine months to complete.