THE HOLDOUTS, a True Story

Newcomers to the lake area are always surprised by the private development found along the shoreline. Most Ozark impoundments were built by the Corps of Engineers--in essence they were federal projects. Private development at those lakes is not permitted within the immediate proximity of the lake shore. The Lake of the Ozarks is different. It was not a federal project. It was created by Union Electric Light and Power Company, of St. Louis. (The company is now known as AmerenUE.) And as a non-government project, all the property around the lake remained in private hands.

But there's a story to be told here, and that's what this posting is all about.

Common law holds that the surface of the lake itself is in the public domain. No one actually owns it, and anyone is entitled to use it, within certain guidelines. For example, boats must be licensed, and docks must have permits. But what of the bottom of the lake? Who owns that?

In order to build the lake, Union Electric first had to purchase all the property that would be flooded by the impounded waters. Engineers determined that the waters would rise to an elevation of 660 feet above sea level. So, obviously, the task placed before Union Electric was to buy up all the land falling below that elevation. This might seem like a straightforward task, but existing property lines did not divide neatly along contour lines. Many of the affected propery owners held tracts of land that extended from the hilltops above to the bottomland below. Though they were burdened by misgivings and saddened by regret, the owners sold it all because it meant cash in hand. Times were hard--it was 1930--and there would not likely be another chance to acquire such a sizeable sum of money. And it made little sense to defy the company since the courts already had ruled that Union Electric could exercise the right of eminent domain.

But some property owners were adamant; they would not sell for any price. Their homes were up on the ridges, and their cultivated fields lay down below. The power company be damned, they were not moving!

In those cases, Union Electric took the owners to court and initiated condemnation proceedings. But rather than attempting to acquire the land outright, the company instead sought flood easements.

In other words, Union Electric asked the court for permission to flood the land in question below elevation 660, but not to buy it. The property owners were paid a small sum for the easement--not nearly as much as they would have gotten had they sold outright. They still had title to their land, all of it, but they had no access to the portion that fell below the surface of the lake.

At the time it seemed like a terrible travesty. While neighbors had sold out and moved away with money to start anew, the few who had refused to sell were left with rocky hilltops, permanently flooded fields, and virtually no money.

Fate, however, has a way of twisting things about.

After the lake filled, the shoreline and the adjoining hills brought exceptionally high prices as the area developed into a vacation mecca. It didn't happen overnight, but the apparent losers in the Union Electric land grab became the wealthiest landowners of them all.

And they still own their fields on the bottom of the lake.

© 2000 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.