By Jeff Wolfe
The sign near the house of Mary Ann DeSantis on Hendrickson Mill Road in Woolwich Township says “Dead End.”
And while that sign refers to the fact that the bridge on that road next to her house is still out since it was first damaged in October of 2010, DeSantis and close friend Anthony Mulford know about plenty of dead ends involving that bridge, the lake next to her house, and the dam that used to help keep that lake full.
While there are plans to replace the bridge on the road, hopefully sometime in 2014, DeSantis and Mulford would like the dam replaced as well. And while they have plans to do that, they are simply that, just plans.
Without some type of financial help from somewhere, it’s simply not going to happen. So what was once a thriving wildlife area that was a sanctuary for a wide variety of birds, including bald eagles, a place to fish for those who knew DeSantis, and a place for turtles to live, is simply nothing more than a shallow pond now.
“Were trying and we’ve been trying, but with the economy the way it’s been, we haven’t had any luck at all,” said Mulford. “We’ve been to number of foundations like Ducks Unlimited, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Wildlife.
“Every place we go we hear the same story of ‘we don’t have enough funding.’ Ducks Unlimited says it (the lake) doesn’t have enough impact for them to do anything. We understand what they are saying, but it’s still hard to hear.”
DeSantis and Mulford have heard a lot of hard words in these past two years. The lake, known as Swan Lake, was a setting where many had formal photos taken, something that DeSantis has said before that gave her great pleasure. But now she and Mulford understand what it means to experience great frustration.
At the moment, the lake appears about a quarter of the way full as sandbags have been placed next to where the bridge will be. Mulford said that was needed because DeSantis has a shallow well and without some water in the lake, her well will run dry.
“She has a shallow well and when the water goes down, her well goes down,” he said. “It costs $8,000 to put in a new well and she doesn’t have that kind of money.”
And it will cost a whole lot more to put in a new dam. According to Mulford that number is approximately $200,000. Yet, Mulford said, they were excruciatingly close to getting financing to build a new dam.
“She was OK’d for the loan and all she needed was for the township to be co-applicants,” Mulford said. “If she had reneged on the loan, they would have gotten the property. I don’t think there was any risk on their part whatsoever. The state could have turned it into open land. There was no real significant risk on their part.
“But they couldn’t do it because it would have to go on their budget.” That, too, was an obvious point of frustration for DeSantis and Mulford.
“I don’t know what their budget is,” Mulford said. “It’s like $5 million (actually it was $8.5 million for 2013) and they couldn’t do this?”
While Woolwich Township is not part of the solution, Mulford believes New Jersey American Water is the biggest part of the problem. It was in the fall of 2010 that a 20-inch pipeline was installed about 30-feet upstream from the bridge. It was in October of 2010 that the bridge began to settle and was first closed. It was completely taken out by the county in September of 2011 for fear of it collapsing after a heavy rainstorm caused it to settle even more.
The county board of freeholders approved $500,000 in emergency funds to have the bridge removed. There are large concrete barriers now on either side of the bridge, and on one side of it the road was destroyed and turned into grass for about 100 yards.
“That structure had been probably built during the New Deal (in the 1930s),” Mulford said. “A year after American Water comes through with a pipeline, all of sudden the dam is failing. The county came in and destroyed everything before any kind of forensic analysis could’ve been done.
“The township was supposed to have been watching that. The engineer for the township at that time never showed up on site and resigned not long afterward.”
According to New Jersey American Water, an inspector was onsite during the construction process and all requirements were met and that the bridge’s structure was not compromised. But Mulford said the pipeline was put down too close to the bridge.
“When they originally applied to put this transmission line in, it was supposed to run about 150 feet up stream from that embankment,” Mulford said. “Then they wound up going about 25 feet down stream. They were within 25 feet of that bridge. “According to them, it wasn’t anything they did. How many hurricanes and major storms in the past 90 years were there and we have never had a problem? Then one year after they put that pipeline through, we are having problems. That’s a no brainer.”
The one piece of what may be good news is that the county does appear close to replacing the bridge. According to Gloucester County Engineer Vince Voltaggio, the county is working to have the plans for the bridge bid ready and placed in the county format.
Voltaggio also said the project is partially funded by the New Jersey Department of Transportation and the county is hopeful that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide the rest of the funds.
“FEMA should be responding in the next two months,” Voltaggio said. “As soon as the funding is in place we will work to bid the project and have construction begin.”
So, while it will be nice to have access to the road back, Mulford is concerned a new bridge may interfere with replacing the dam.
“I’m very interested to see what the design is,” Mulford said. “She (DeSantis) has asked to be shown the design, and to this day she has seen nothing. I think they are trying to move it and encroach on her property a little bit more.
“I’m worried they are going to put a culvert there and that it will interfere with the dam.”
Voltaggio said construction of the bridge has no bearing on whether a resident constructs a dam or not. “Any dam that is built by the resident would have to be outside of the right of way and would not be allowed to be connected in any way to the bridge structure,” Voltaggio said.
Mulford said the dam replacement would be a relatively simple project.
“It’s not like it’s a real complicated thing to fix,” he said. “It’s not like we are building a remake of the Hoover Dam. It’s about 120 feet of sheet pile steel in the ground about 15 or 16 feet. The only thing that gets a little complicated is the (water) level control gate, but even that’s not that complicated.”
The issue, however, could get complicated if DeSantis and Mulford decide to involve attorneys. Mulford said they are almost at the point where they have no other choice.
“She has 100 percent been forced into that position,” Mulford said. “It’s gotten to the point now where we are sure there was a cause for this thing to fail. Nobody is trying to help us at all. Everybody is denying things and passing the buck. It’s actually getting to the point where she is going to have to sue somebody, maybe the county, the township and American Water. Nobody wants anything to do with any kind of responsibility.”
Mulford says the county and Woolwich Township have hurt their efforts instead of helped.
“From having watched everything unfold, they could care less and are not going to lift one finger to help,” Mulford said. “They probably don’t want anything to do with it period. The county said we should let it turn back into a meadow. It was a meadow back in the 1700’s. That pond was created in the 1780’s or 1790’s with the original wooden dam. It’s been there for well over 200 years.”
But whether or not it will return in future years remains very much a mystery.
“There was all of this professed willingness to help in the beginning, but there has been nothing,” Mulford said. “I’ve spent $10,000, or probably closer to $20,000 of my own personal money over the years taking care of that lake. But we’ve gone from hearing promises to a sense of rejection.”