GRETNA, Nebraska — Nestled amid the cottonwoods and cedar trees along the Platte River, Riverside Acres offers a secluded refuge for a cluster of 25 homes and cabins midway between Omaha and Lincoln.
There are lakes for fishing, trails for walkers and four-wheelers and scenic views of the river that settlers described as a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s only a short walk to prime deer-hunting spots and blinds for goose hunting.
But there’s turmoil in paradise these days.
State legislators are eyeing an expanse of Platte River floodplain, just east across a dusty gravel road from Riverside Acres, for a massive sandpit lake.
At 4,000 acres and 7 miles long — the size of Iowa’s popular Lake Okoboji — the lake is projected to attract $1 billion in private investment and be big enough for boating, marinas and condos. In addition, boosters say, it might be impressive enough to help dissuade young people from moving away to places that offer mountains, beaches and big waterways, which are lacking near Nebraska’s largest cities.
Momentum in Legislature
While there seems to be momentum at the State Legislature to launch a public-private partnership for the project, the views are much more mixed when you talk to people who live on or near the preferred site of the big lake, just north and south of Linoma Beach in Sarpy County.
“I think it’s a joke,” said Don Brudny Jr., from his home in Riverside Acres. “It’s a way for real estate developers and people with money to try and make some more money.”
“I don’t want to find out that we have to move,” said Terry Newland, a neighbor of Brudny’s.
But just upriver, Jud Farrell, whose family has a home in the 29-lot Beacon View subdivision, said he’s probably OK with the big lake.
“I can see the positives,” Farrell said. “But I know a lot of landowners down here and I hope they’re treated fairly.”
Dan Bundy, whose family farm would be mostly inundated by the proposed lake site, said he’s still waiting for details that haven’t been provided.
“I have serious doubts that they can legitimately make it work,” Bundy said. “(But) how can you be for or against anything if you don’t know anything?”
The comments come as a Nebraska legislative committee appears poised, as early as this week, to advance the bill containing the big lake proposal.
Legislative Bill 1023, the Lake Development Act and the Water Recreation Enhancement Act, proposes to spend $20 million on a study of the lake idea and to place $26 million in a fund for costs of the lake.
That spending is part of $200 million in recreation enhancements proposed in LB 1023 by a special committee of the Legislature, the Statewide Tourism and Recreational Water Access and Resource Sustainability (STARWARS) Committee.
State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, who chaired the committee, had asked lawmakers to come up with “transformational” and “big swing” ideas to make Nebraska more attractive to new and existing residents. It’s time to think big, Hilgers, the Speaker of the Legislature has said, given that the state has millions in excess tax revenue and $1.04 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
Among the ideas are enhancements to popular Lake McConaughy, including a $34 million marina, a $42 million lodge at Niobrara State Park and $42 million in boating facilities at Lewis and Clark Lake.
Hilgers, in an interview Sunday, said a lot of landowner questions can’t be answered until a precise location for the lake is finalized and a study is done of the impacts on water supplies, flooding and the environment. That may take two to three years.
But he did say that to the extent possible, existing homes will not be taken, and land will be bought on a willing-seller basis.
‘We want a win, win, win’
“Our entire goal is to add to that area and not take any,” Hilgers said. “We want a win, win, win.”
While an exact location hasn’t been picked, he said, it will likely be in the general area just east of Linoma Beach because it is undeveloped, in the floodplain and involves only a handful of landowners.
Hilgers added that it “will not be a private lake for rich people.”
“This will be a place for all Nebraskans, of all economic backgrounds, to use,” he said, with public access that is “widespread.”
Lots of questions
Those who live on the Platte River bottoms that would be impacted by the big lake have a slew of questions, even though most agreed it would help tourism:
- Would it exacerbate flooding for existing homes and cabins?
- Would it create congestion and crowding, things existing residents fled when choosing to live in the quiet, wooded enclaves along the Platte?
- Would it increase property taxes? Many of those living in the area are retirees or nearing retirement.
- What would be done with the glut of sand and gravel extracted to create a 30-foot-deep lake? Local sand pits, they say, typically mine 20 to 30 acres of sand and gravel a year, not 4,000 acres.
- How would the project deal with the highway, railroad line and an electric transmission line that dissect the site?
- Would it hurt or help the Lincoln and Omaha water systems, whose wells for drinking water dot the landscape along the Platte?
Flood control benefits?
“It’s a piss-poor idea for flood control,” said Bundy, whose family has farmed the Platte River bottoms for 120 years.
He said the millions of dollars budgeted for the lake would be better spent on raising the existing flood-control levee, built in the 2000s.
Hilgers said Sunday that while the big lake is not “primarily” a flood control project, the study could show that it has some impact.
On Saturday, a trio of Beacon View residents gave a Nebraska Examiner reporter a tour around the proposed lake site. It took probably 45 minutes to make the drive, on gravel roads. The flat location is between 255th Street, which parallels the river, and 234th Street, which runs along Interstate 80 to just west of Gretna. It runs from about Schram Road on the north to the Platte River on the south.
As the group watched, a red fox slowly trotted across one field and a thousand geese or more roosted on a marsh near the river. A pair of bald eagles watched warily from a cottonwood.
More than a dozen pickup trucks and men donning orange vests gathered on one road, a prelude to a special hunt to thin out the deer population on land owned by the Lincoln Water System, the tour guides said. Lincoln has several wells in the area to draw drinking water, which is piped 30 miles to the Capital City.
Along 234th Street, the eastern boundary of the area, is a smattering of acreages that would have a commanding view of the big lake, if it’s built.
Hilgers has said the area provides “unique” advantages because of its location directly between Omaha and Lincoln, with access from U.S. Highway 6 and proximity to I-80.
Only four homes are in the 7-mile-long, 4,000-acre site, which is covered mostly corn and soybean fields.
And only a handful of landowners would have to be persuaded to sell. The Bundy family is one, along with Lyman Richey, a sand and gravel firm that has a couple of working sandpits in the area. A firm related to the Seldin Company, an Omaha real estate developer and property manager, also has land in the area.
‘I don’t want to move’
Down at Riverside Acres, Newland said his main question is whether the state is going to take his home and his backyard lake.
“I don’t want to move,” said Newland, who was once forced to sell some farmland for an Iowa lake project, Lake Panorama. He said what he was paid through the eminent domain process wasn’t enough to replace the farmland he lost.
Upriver at Beacon View, Phil Young, whose father bought a cabin along the Platte 65 years ago, said hehas been assured that their small subdivision would be left alone.
Unlike most of those interviewed, Young has met with Hilgers and others promoting the project. Reportedly, meetings were held in Ashland and at Mahoney State Park, just across the river, but none of those interviewed Saturday said they had been aware of the meetings until after they had been held.
Young’s main concern is about future flooding.
He pointed to a spot a couple inches below the stop of the Platte River levee, where floodwaters rose during the epic flooding in 2019. Will construction of a big lake, with dozens of buildings around it and, presumably, a levee to protect it, funnel floodwaters through Beacon View?
Memories of past floods
He and other residents of the area, including Bundy, who lives just down the road, have vivid memories of the floods of 1993 and 1997 — before the levee was built — when springtime ice-jam floods inundated several homes and covered crop fields. The future holds more flooding, they say, asking whether that that would fill this big lake with silt and debris.
Bruce Kalchik, who owns a home at Beacon View, said he’ll probably never live to see the completion of the lake, but he’d like to see it built.
Still, he said, this quiet little corner of Sarpy County, along the Platte River, would never be the same if the big lake became their neighbor.
“This will be part of the city,” Kalchik said.
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