Speedwell’s rebirth is a media darling, and a case study in legislative deal-making

By on February 3, 2016

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It wasn’t exactly a media circus, but it was definitely a bit of a party Tuesday morning when the slow rebirth of Speedwell Forge Lake began.

At about 11 a.m., a work crew from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission lowered the first of six stop logs into a concrete control tower through which flows the entire volume of Hammer Creek. The control tower is a shaft about five feet square and 35 feet from top to bottom. According to the PFBC’s Jerry Woomer, each stop log is a six-inch square, five-foot length of solid, untreated Pennsylvania oak cut and milled in Centre County. Woomer is the dam project’s chief engineer.

The first stop log to go down the control tower has a valve on the downstream side that will remain open to allow a constant flow into the creek bed. Without at least some flow, the existing creek bed would die. In some unusual circumstances, the valve might have to be closed, but Woomer, who was pretty busy with the day’s work, didn’t elaborate.

Over the next 10 weeks or so, partly dependent on the weather, another 34 stop logs will be lowered to the bottom of the shaft. When all 40 stop logs are in place, there will be a 20-foot wall of solid oak backing up the waters of what will once again be Speedwell Forge Lake. Woomer said the level of the lake will rise by one to three feet per week over a 10-week period, with, again, a lot depending on the weather.

There were plenty of witnesses to the lake’s new beginning, with photographers, reporters, videographers and the PFBC’s PR specialist, Eric Levis, who had arranged for the party to happen, on hand.

The stop log installation was destined to happen at some point in time, but not this quickly. It could have taken up to six more years had it not been for a last minute political offensive conceived of, coordinated and led by Lititz’s own John Bear.

In 2012 Bear, born, raised and still living in Lititz, was a member of the Pennsylvania House, representing the 97th Legislative District. Although Speedwell Lake was just outside his district (it’s in the 37th), Bear had a keen interest in Speedwell and knew that the rest of his fellow Lancaster County legislators shared his desire to get the lake refilled.

The lake was drained in 2011, after a double weather whammy from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee assaulted the dam that was built to create the lake in 1966. Irene and Lee seriously damaged the dam, and after nearly half-a-century of service, there was concern that the weakened structure could give way and result in a destructive flood to downstream homes in the Hammer Creek watershed. In late 2011, the lake was allowed to drain. It became a 106-acre dry hole.

And there was no money to fix the dam to get the lake back.

Except that there was money, according to Bear. The $6.4 million required to put Speedwell back on the map as an actual lake had been approved by the Pennsylvania legislature and it was included in the capital budget project itemization bill for 2012.

Here’s how a fact sheet from the House Appropriations Committee explains the annual capital budget project itemization bill:

“The General Assembly must authorize capital budget projects in a capital project itemization bill. Once a project is itemized in law, the governor has the discretion to release funds for the project. Because there are almost always many more projects itemized in law than there are available funds, the governor often has tremendous latitude in deciding which projects move forward.”

Bear served in the Pennsylvania House from 2006 until 2012, when he left government service to become managing director of Griffin Stevens & Lee’s state and local government consulting practice. The Speedwell project was the crowning achievement of his relatively brief legislative career, and he discussed it one morning over breakfast at the Tomato Pie Cafe in downtown Lititz.

June 30, as many unelected Pennsylvanians know, is the constitutionally-mandated deadline for the governor and the legislature to come to an agreement on a budget for the next fiscal year. On June 28, 2012, then-governor Tom Corbett was focused on any number of budgetary and legislative issues, none of which happened to be the lake at Speedwell Forge.

The governor dearly wanted legislation passed that would allow some money from the motor license fund to be diverted to another fund that would pay for the training of an increased pool of state police cadets. A bill to do just that had passed the Senate unanimously, but when it got to the House, it disappeared. A small number of lawmakers were opposed to taking any money from the motor license fund, and the majority weren’t all that interested anyway.

Bear said he had an “aha” moment. There had been a lot of community activity from Lancaster County sportsmen, bird watchers, nature lovers and others, particularly the Save Speedwell Foundation, who became alarmed at the possibility that their once-favorite body of water would remain a dry crater.

But the Governor wasn’t paying attention to their pleas. He wanted more troopers. He wanted the House to pass his bill. And he wanted it done before the budget deadline of midnight, June 30, because that’s when the Constitution says the budget has to be done.

Bear said he approached the Governor’s office with this query: If the House approves your bill for training more troops, will the governor release the funds for Speedwell Forge Lake, funds which had already been approved by the legislature?

He got a “yes.” Could the Governor’s office put that in writing? Bear wanted to know. Another “yes.”

Bear met one of the Governor’s staffers around 10 a.m. on June 30. The staffer showed him the letter. Bear said, “Thanks,” and reached for the letter. No-no-no, he was told. “You don’t get the letter until the legislation passes.”

That night, at 11:28 p.m., just 32 minutes shy of their midnight deadline, the House passed the Governor’s cadet funding bill, Bear got the letter he’d asked for, along with the Speedwell funds he and his colleagues and constituents had so earnestly wanted.

And this past Tuesday morning, Speedwell Forge Lake got a new lease on life. Break out your fishing rods, your binoculars, your long lenses, canoes, kayaks and waders. It’ll be a lake again in the spring.

Dick Wanner is a staff writer for the Record Express. He welcomes reader feedback at rwanner.eph@lnpnews.com.

 

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