Bob Downing

ZOAR: This historic hamlet doesn’t want to disappear.


It doesn’t want to be moved. It doesn’t want to be wiped off the map.


It wants to remain just as it has since the early 1800s on state Route 212 south of Bolivar in northern Tuscarawas County.


The threat to Zoar’s future comes from a deteriorating levee that protects the community along with its 168 residents and 98 historic structures from flood waters along the Tuscarawas River.


Federal officials are expected to decide Zoar’s fate by late 2013.


The flood-weakened levee that rises some 45 feet above the low-lying Zoar has been damaged over the years by flood waters. The fear is that water seeping under the levee could threaten the integrity of the earthen structure that stretches nearly 4,000 feet on two sides of the village and the Zoar Village State Memorial.


Living next to a troubled levee is both “troubling and unsettling,” said Zoar Mayor Larry Bell. “But the remedy could be even worse. That’s what we’re fighting.”


Zoar, listed on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places, was founded by German religious dissenters as a communal society. It was one of the longest-lived communal societies in the United States.


The Ohio Historical Society has restored 10 buildings in Zoar, an Old World-style village that attracted 21,000 visitors last year. Other historic buildings are privately owned.


Looking at options


In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that hit New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is charged with looking at all options to save historic structures.


One option would be to relocate Zoar’s buildings out of the flood zone to higher ground. This would affect 61 acres and 90 percent of the village’s historic structures.


Another option is for the federal government to buy Zoar, raze its buildings, breach the levee and flood the village.


Fixing the levee also remains an option. But that could come at a price tag of as much as $130 million, according to one estimate.


Many villagers fear the worst. They fear razing the buildings could win out.


“It’s very troubling, and there’s a sword hanging over our heads,” said Jon Elsasser, president of the Zoar Community Association, a grassroots group that manages the historic site for the Ohio Historical Society.


“It’s scary because we don’t know what’s going to happen.…We face the very real possibility that our town could be razed or relocated to higher ground, and we don’t want that.”


Bell said villagers are experiencing everything from anxiety to fear to concern to frustration to apathy.


“Some feel that the Corps has already made up its mind and that the Corps is going to do what it wants regardless,” said the mayor.


Dan Rice of the Akron-based Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition, said the threat to the village’s future is “absolutely real.”


“Zoar is an irreplaceable, priceless resource, Rice said. “We want the Corps to fix the levy and save the village.”


Zoar and its supporters have launched a website to garner support and to convince federal officials that the village should be saved. The website address is www.savehistoriczoar.org.


The Corps says it is premature to speculate on what specific options might be considered or what action it might take, said spokesman Aaron Smith, who is the Zoar study manager.


Eventual recommendations will deal with environmental, financial and historical issues, he said.


“We have to look at the totality and the risk, not just the money,” he said.


The agency must also deal with numerous federal rules regarding historic sites and buildings.


Seepage under levy


The levee was built in 1937 to 1938 to protect Zoar from high water that backs up behind the Dover Dam on the Tuscarawas River.


The Dover Dam is four miles south of Zoar off state Route 212. The dam primarily functions only during heavy storms to slow the pace of water. The Corps has signed easements with nearby landowners that permits flooding when the water backs up.


The concrete dam is in the midst of its own $68.5 million rehabilitation project. The Corps own and operates the dam, but the Muskingum Conservancy Watershed District is providing the local funding for the project.


The levee stretches 3,993 feet along the southern and western edges of the village. The earth-filled structure was raised in 1951 and has an average height of 35 feet. Its maximum height is 45 feet and is 8 to 60 feet wide at the crest.


The problem is seepage of water under the levee.


In 2005, 6 to 12 inches of water came inside the levee. And three years later, water backed up again and the seepage increased.


Giant boils up to 18 inches in diameter showed evidence of sand and gravel being moved by percolating water under the levee. The area flooded was east of state Route 212. The water was about 6 inches deep.


There were earlier reports of seepage under the levee in 1947.


Smith said the 2008 seepage concerned the Corps. The reason is water was actually lower than in 2005, but the amount of seepage had increased.


This led the Corps to give the Zoar Levee its highest risk level. The need for repairs or other action is “urgent and compelling” because of the significant risk, the Corps says.


The federal rating on the Zoar Levee is the worst of 14 rated dams in the Muskingum River Basin that stretches from Bolivar to Marietta on the Ohio River.


Reducing flood risk


In the interim, the Corps has taken numerous steps to reduce the flood risk at Zoar. An emergency filter blanket was installed on the levee and a third pump and new emergency generator were added. Devices to measure earth movement were installed. Drainage improvements were made and emergency supplies were also stockpiled. Nearly $2 million has been spent so far.


Smith said the Corps also kicked off a Dam Safety Modification Study that was completed in October.


The agency intends to conduct a detailed Environmental Impact Statement to fully assess its options, Smith said.


The risk plan under way is slated to be done in October 2013. There likely will be a public review of the draft report in early 2014. It will be submitted to the Corps’ Cincinnati headquarters in July 2014. It will then be forwarded to Washington, D.C., for final approval in early 2015.


It is too early to say exactly how much repairing the levee might cost, Smith said.


A federal estimate offered five years ago put the tab at anywhere from $100 million to $130 million.


Removing the levee and moving Zoar is an option that must be analyzed, Smith said.


“It’s one of the alternatives that we have to look at and it’s not something that we’re sugarcoating,” he said.


“There is some fear in Zoar about such possibilities, but we’ve tried to be open and honest with the stakeholders,” he said. “We sense little animosity.”


Elsasser said the Corps has been “upfront and honest” in dealing with the community.


Rice said there is concern because analyzing such non-structural options is a new approach for the Corps. This makes such a study in Zoar new and different.


“The Corps is in a tough spot,” he said.


Grassroots effort


The grassroots effort to save Zoar could cost as much as $70,000 over the next 18 months. So far about $20,000 has been raised, Elsasser said. The money will be largely used to raise public awareness and build a case that Zoar is historically significant, he said.


The Corps has advised Zoar officials that they need to offer more evidence of Zoar’s historical importance and other intangibles to justify spending more money on repairs, he said.


Some of those funds might be used to help Zoar earn National Historic Landmark status from the National Park Service, he said.


Winning such a designation would afford Zoar more protection and make it harder for the Corp to proceed with razing or moving the village, said Elsasser, a retired Timken Co. executive.


“We need to show national support and national significance,” said Bell, who has been mayor for 16 years.


Zoar appears to be one of three sites in the United States where the federal government built levees to protect historical buildings, he said.


Zoar officials are working with numerous state and national historical groups to build a case on Zoar’s importance, Elsasser said.


Factoring in Zoar’s cultural and historical value is “unplowed ground…and it’s scary because there’s no precedent,” he said. “How do you put a price tag on history?”


Moving Zoar is better than razing, but supporters really want the levee to be fixed, he said.


Elsasser said they are confident that they can save Zoar.


“But we cannot assume it’s a slam dunk. We have to keep working and fighting.”


Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.