CLPRA Learns From Lake District

Schuyler County Legislature Chairman Dennis Fagan appeared as a guest at the Chautauqua Lake Protection and Rehabilitation Agency meeting. P-J photo by Eric Zavinski

MAYVILLE — The Chautauqua Lake Protection and Rehabilitation Agency members listened to lessons learned from Dennis Fagan of the Waneta Lamoka Lake Protection District regarding how a taxing district was set up years ago to fund their community’s lakes and tackle the area’s former most prevalent issue of invasive Eurasian milfoil.

Along with its size, Chautauqua Lake shares that similarity of unwanted biomass with both Waneta Lake and Lamoka Lake, especially when these two smaller 800-acre water bodies sandwiched between the Finger Lakes in Western New York didn’t have a comprehensive plan to take care of the weeds and other lake issues in the 1980s and 1990s.

The purpose of the CLPRA, set up by the Chautauqua County Legislature, is to investigate whether it would be worth it to set up a taxing district for residents living in municipalities around the lake in order to raise dedicated funding for Chautauqua Lake’s health concerns such as the weeds prevalence or blue-green algal blooms. CLPRA members desired a second opinion and knowledge of another community’s past experience, so they invited Fagan, who is also the Schuyler County Legislature Chairman, to share his successes and struggles forming and maintaining a taxing district for the lakes.

Waneta and Lamoka lakes are connected by a small channel, and they border two counties and four towns. After decades in the 20th century of different methods of treating the lake, including an unsuccessful harvesting program led by the local highway departments that actually spread milfoil further, a district was formed after consensus was reached through a lengthy public hearing process.

“We wanted to be self-sufficient,” said Fagan, who noted that the lakes’ health shouldn’t have to be contingent on grant money that may or may not be awarded each year. “We had plenty of time for discussion, description and public input.”

When the district was first formed in 2002, the group leading it went to work on its first annual survey to establish where the littoral zones were and what would need to be treated with herbicides. The first herbicide treatment followed in May 2003. Septic system inspections began in 2007.

At first, the local New York State Department of Environmental Conservation district was not happy with the treatments after it was discovered some chemicals used in Waneta Lake drained into Lamoka Lake and killed some native plants. It was later discovered this didn’t have much of an effect on fish habitat, and the relationship between the district and DEC could only go up from there. In 2008, the lake protection district was able to allocate $100,000 as part of the DEC’s invasive species control plan and begin spot treatments that further cleaned up the lakes.

“You start to get their respect,” Fagan said.

In 2015, the Waneta Lamoka Lake Protection District was the first entity Fagan knows of in the state to receive a five-year permit to treat their lakes with herbicides. After studying the lakes, crews determined each lake only needed treated once every three years. Money allocated through the taxing district is saved up for treatments, as with Lamoka Lake’s last herbicide treatment in 2018. That lake isn’t expected to need another treatment until 2021.

Fagan and his district members only decided to tax lakefront property owners and those who were connected to some aspect of the lake. As such, residents with more than 80 feet of property bordering one of the lakes would pay $120 per year in taxes. Those with less than 80 feet would pay $90 per year. Those who had some level of access would pay $60, and those property owners with property adjoining wetlands connected to the lake would pay $18 per year.

“We decided to only impact the primary beneficiaries of the lakes,” said Fagan, who mentioned he wishes he could find a DEC-approved way to charge boat users and other recreationalists as well to compensate for their use of the lake.

These were the initial numbers in the early years of the district’s life. Back then, approximately $103,000 were collected through the lake district annually, with $11,000 being used for the annual plant survey and $75,000 being used for herbicide treatments.

At the time, Fagan said that the district had 70 to 80 percent approval and that there were never any major complaints or controversies leading into present day. He said he recalled those newly taxed who said that at least they knew that all of the lake district’s funds would be used to ensure the health and stability of the lake.

On top of herbicide treatments triannually, stormwater management projects of interest are also utilized in the surrounding watershed. While Waneta and Lamoka lakes don’t have as many organizations advocating for different methods of keeping the lake healthy as Chautauqua County has, these two lakes were supported by multiple county and local governments. County legislatures, Fagan said, would take the recommendations of the district and put them into place.

In 2017, a 50 percent increase for every tax level was implemented, meaning that those who owned more than 80 feet of lakefront property paid $180 instead of $120 and so on. Even then, Fagan said, no one made much of a fuss since the lakes were in such good health, and it was generally accepted that the rates would have to rise since their implementation 15 years earlier.

Fagan said property values on the lakes have mostly doubled or tripled for residents on Waneta and Lamoka lakes and that the Eurasian milfoil headache from before the 21st century is kept in the past. County Executive George Borrello and CLPRA members thanked Fagan for his educational input and shared a general sense of optimism that lake woes for Chautauqua Lake will improve in the future as well.