Otter Lake residents blast assessment

HOUGHTON – Otter Lake landowners protested a proposed tax for the maintenance of the lake’s dam during a hearing in Houghton County Circuit Court Tuesday.

About 40 people attended the hearing, which was required as part of the legal process for setting up a special assessment district.

The district includes the approximately 70 landowners with property on the lake shore, as well as a couple of homes on the Sturgeon River that have access to the area. About 80 percent of the tax will be levied on them, with 10 percent each being paid by Houghton County and Portage Township.

Drain Commissioner John Pekkala said the district was determined through means such as aerial surveys and consulting the tax rolls. Two properties from an earlier draft of the map were omitted after it was determined they did not abut the lake.

Pekkala said only “very preliminary steps” had been taken to determine the amount of tax the landowners would pay.

The Department of Natural Resources, which built the dam in 1975, recently informed Houghton County it would no longer be paying for maintenance costs on the dam.

Residents took issue with the existence of the assessment district, as well as what they considered a disproportionate burden.

Residents also suggested replacing the 37-year-old dam with a natural dam.

Landowner Douglas Groesehl, who has lived on the lake for eight years, said the dam has probably escalated the amount of flooding on his property.

“It’s got its blessings and its curses, but the blessings are more noticed by the general public,” said Douglas Groesehl, who said parts of his property had been underwater for a month, and his road for two weeks. “They’ve been out fishing since May 15 … and I’m still cleaning up the mess on my property.”

Groesehl also said it’s a scary time to assume responsibility for the dam, which is nearing the end of its useful life.

“If something catastrophic were to happen, we have no idea what the special assessment would or could be,” he said.

Residents said the dam had also had negative impacts, including on the quality of fishing. Resident John Beck disputed the notion that he had benefitted from the dam, as required by the special assessment district.

“My property has been irreparably harmed by the dam, taking away lake shore and giving me swampland,” he said. “There’s no market value in swampland.”

Mark Koerner, attorney for the county, said the responsibility for upkeep does not fall solely on the lakefront property owners.

“Most have indicated that they think the county as a whole should bear the cost of the assessments,” he said. “However, the statute is clear that those specifically benefitted by the maintaining of the lake should also be assessed, and in this case, there are. Portage Township will be assessed as an at-large assessment because of the public access, and Houghton County will also be assessed at large.”

Residents also questioned creating a district nearly 40 years after the building of the dam. Koerner said a state Supreme Court ruling in a similar case backs up the county’s ability to create the special assessment district.

Mazzuchi said further written objections can be sent to the court until 5 p.m. June 18. There will then be a 14-day period where the county and Koerner can submit any responses in writing to the objection. The court would then be able to make a decision after July 1.