Originally created 03/31/97

Homeowners preserve lake



It's not hard to believe Sudlow Lake residents when they talk about how much they love where they live.

The residents jointly own the lake and are the only ones who can use it. Their homes are all waterfront, and almost everyone has a boat dock. People fish, water ski, and sometimes in the early evening, they'll take a few pontoon boats out, tie them together and have a little party in the middle of the lake.

Many residents have placed a carved sign at the end of their driveways, announcing the name of their homes. The numerous "No trespassing" signs give the flip side of the same message - this is our place.

People don't sell their homes very often, and with little turnover the residents all seem to know each other. They remember swimming in the summer when they were young, and talk about the lake the way other people might reminisce about Myrtle Beach or Tybee Island.

When Jeanie Mayson and her family first came to Sudlow Lake 43 years ago, her family was one of only two that lived there full time. The rest of the roughly 28 total properties were second homes people used in the summer and for vacations.

Now, most Sudlow Lake residents inhabit the idyllic site yearround.

People feel comfortable staying there full time because the surrounding area has grown up. Whereas years ago it was a getaway, Sudlow Lake feels more like it's part of an urban area. Ms. Mayson can remember a time where there were only four homes on the nearby Ascauga Lake Road, now much more developed. Now there's people around. A school bus comes out. The main access road has been paved for about a decade. It's no longer like going on a camping trip.

Lin Peeples, a resident, said 20 years ago his family wouldn't have wanted to stay overnight in the area because of its remoteness, but that's a thing of the past.

"There's subdivisions with a couple hundred homes just a scream away," Mr. Peeples said. "It's a big scream, but it's a scream."

The growth has had its downside. The residents of Sudlow Lake have had enough environmental problems that in 1988, a state Department of Health and Environmental Control engineer chose the area as the subject of a masters project.

The problem is that the lake is a trickle-down point for its particular watershed. Run-off from construction projects in the area seems to find its way to Sudlow Lake. Residents recalled a spill that took place several miles away on Interstate 20. Environmental officials came to Sudlow Lake to test the water, because if anything spilled into water, it would show up at Sudlow.

"It's a gorgeous place, and they've gone through a great deal," said Myra Reece, district director for DHEC.

Sudlow Lake was built around 1907 by the Carolina Light and Power Company, a forerunner of South Carolina Electric and Gas Company. The lake is fed by Franklin Branch and Little Horse Creek. The company wanted hydroelectric power for a trolley running between Aiken and Augusta. The lake is named for Harry Sudlow, the first power plant operator there.

It served that purpose until 1929, when the dam burst. The area began a gradual transition to private property. At first one family owned the entire property and rented lots, allowing only non-permanent structures to be built. In the 1960s that family sold to some of the regular renters, and by the mid-1970s the current arrangement came into being, with the lake property being divided into 40 lots, each having an equal interest in the lake.

The governing body of the lake is a homeowner's association. It collects the nominal maintenance fees, and occasionally raises funds for special projects. Property owners get to vote on how money is spent.

The association has no staff, so the residents do almost all their own maintenance work.

The big project this winter was lowering the lake and clearing out the sediment that had built up. They were able to do this themselves because one of the lake residents had access to road equipment and the ability to operate it. They lowered the lake for two months during the winter to collect the tons of silt, and over the next several months they expect to haul it out with a dump truck.

The pitch-in spirit of the place, Ms. Mayson said, is illustrated by the story of her sprinkler system.

Ms. Mayson tells the story as if she were describing an Amish barn-raising, or the last scene of It's a Wonderful Life.

She is an avid gardener, and often had to haul hoses around the property to keep all her greenery fresh. Her neighbors decided enough was enough.

Mr. Brown and others came over one Saturday morning to install a sprinkler system on her property. When people saw what was going on, they came over to help. By the afternoon, 15 people were working on the system, with Ms. Mayson providing them cool drinks.

By 7 p.m., the sprinkler was up and running.

"It just blew me away," she said. "It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened."

In 1988, R. Kim Cauthen, a district engineer for DHEC, studied why the flow of sediment into the lake has been increasing since 1970. The sediment discolors and slowly fills in the lake, requiring residents to dredge it out.

The study considered seven possibilities, including the building of I-20 in the late 1970s, development along Ascauga Lake Road, paving of the lake's access road and local timber cutting. He found those events likely to have caused a temporary increase, but not a long-term problem.

The long-term problem, he concluded, came from power line construction in the mid-1980s by South Carolina Electric and Gas Company (the builder of the lake in the first place). The power line crosses Franklin Branch about 1,800 feet above the lake and Little Horse Creek about 6,000 feet above the lake.

The power company told Mr. Cauthen it had taken installed "waterbreaks" to prevent erosion, but he couldn't find them. The creek beds were destroyed in the making of the process, and they have yet to fully recover, and that is why the erosion continues, he concluded.

Nothing happened as a result of his study because "at the time, the enforcement avenues weren't there, the absolute proof wasn't there," Mr. Cauthen said, so nothing happened as a result of the study - a source of frustration for him.

"That's a very beautiful lake, and you hate to see the resource destroyed," he said.

That report was more about what happened in the past, but it pointed to things to do in the future.

It must give a permit for any construction or other activity that could cause erosion, so they can act up-front to prevent make sure the erosion doesn't begin again.

Austin Brown is the president of the resident association. If he or his neighbors see a muddying of their waters, he is the one to call DHEC.

"The main thing we want to do is prevent future impacts to that water body," Ms. Reece said.