Lake Charlene flood project gets Escambia County approval, now in the hands of residents

Article Courtesy of  The Pensacola News Journal

By Jim Little

Published January 24, 2021


A federally funded project aimed at reducing flooding in the Lake Charlene neighborhood is once again in the hands of the residents who live there.

The Escambia County Commission unanimously approved a new easement agreement, with added protections for the homeowners, that would allow the county to move forward on a $2 million project to address flooding around Lake Charlene.

The project has been on the books for years and has failed to clear the final hurdles needed to get underway.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is funding a $2.1 million grant for the project, which has been mired in county politics and opposition from some neighborhood residents.


A FEMA-funded project to reduce the likelihood of flooding in the Lake Charlene area has a second chance at approval if the County Commission and Lake Charlene Homeowners Association can approve a new easement agreement.

Lake Charlene residents look for the county and FEMA to help with future flooding issues.


The project would allow the county to replace a sluice gate that controls Lake Charlene's level with a weir that would lower the lake level by 9 inches and allow for a much greater outflow during high-rain events.

Engineers say the project will move 75 homes out of the 100-year flood plain and reduce the frequency of flooding in another 266 properties.

To move forward, the project requires the homeowners association to grant the county a land easement that would allow control of the property where the sluice gate is located.

District 2 County Commissioner Doug Underhill, who represents the neighborhood, pointed out the sluice gate was actually built by the county and then "gifted" to the HOA when the neighborhood was built. He said that would never happen today.

"We have an opportunity in this project to correct something that was done very, very wrong in the past that has created very serious financial losses for a number of citizens in Lake Charlene," Underhill said. "Again, if we do not move this thing forward today, the odds of being able to complete construction within the deadline to keep that FEMA money is almost zero."

Underhill has advocated for the project but has clashed with some members of the Lake Charlene Homeowners Association board, including a member of his 2014 and 2018 political opponents' campaigns.

Other residents opposed the project because they did not support lowering the lake level and argued the county had overstepped a previous 1980s easement in which it built drainage pipes from surrounding neighborhoods that flow into the lake.

After a failed eminent domain attempt by Underhill, the HOA put the easement up to the vote of the neighborhood in 2019. While a majority of homeowners voted to approve easement, the vote was far short of the two-thirds the HOA bylaws required and the project appeared to be dead.

However, after Hurricane Sally struck in September and caused widespread flooding, Underhill again tried to bring the project forward, and a group of residents backed his effort.

A new easement agreement was negotiated with added protections that specified the lake's level and prohibited the county from using its drainpipes to send more water into the lake.

With Thursday's vote, the HOA must now decide if it will approve the project.

County officials said the construction of the project must be complete by the end of 2021 for it to remain eligible for the FEMA grant.

The project's unanimous approval almost didn't happen Thursday as Underhill initially failed to gain a single commissioner's support to move forward.

Commissioner Jeff Bergosh ultimately decided to back Underhill's motion after learning the project would have to be completed by the end of the year to keep the FEMA grant.

Bergosh said he's listened to the residents who were flooded again during Hurricane Sally and said he didn't want the county to lose out on money it already had to address flooding when it's such a large problem throughout the county.

"I understand there's some risks we'll be taking but helping 75 families to keep from flooding, again, is a risk that I'll take," Bergosh said.

After Bergosh voiced support, the other commissioners backed the plan.

Bergosh said the residents of Lake Charlene should move quickly to vote for approval.

"We did our part for you," Bergosh said.