Homeowners plead for lake help

Homeowners at Lake of the Ozarks pleaded today with U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, federal authorities and elected officials to help in their fight over property rights.

But the entity not participating in the conference call is the one most at the core of the dispute: Ameren Missouri, the utility company that operates the Osage Hydroelectric Project at Bagnell Dam.

During today’s event, the company came under fire for its role in a controversy that has threatened hundreds of homeowners with the possibility that they don’t own the land beneath their houses.

Camden County surveyor Greg Hasty accused Ameren of actions that “border on fraud” and of using “its great power to crush homeowners one at a time.”

McCaskill, who arranged the conference call, attempted to tone down the attacks. She pledged to meet soon with Ameren’s CEO.

Ameren could not be reached for comment.

The issue started when a new shoreline management plan proposed by Ameren revealed that more than 1,200 homes had been built on “buffer” land controlled by the utility company.

At first, it appeared the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has the ultimate say at the lake because of the hydroelectric project, may force removal of the homes and also 3,000 or so gazebos, decks and docks.

FERC officials since have said that was never its intent, and blamed Ameren for mishandling the situation, casting undo blame and allowing the problem in the first place. On Thursday, the commission ordered Ameren to redraw the buffer contour around the lake in such a manner as to remove homes from the area.

But the order did not address ownership of those lots, something FERC said it has no jurisdiction over.

So what likely has to happen is for Ameren to “quit claim” property back to residents, some of whom have owned their homes and paid taxes on them for years.

Either that, or the owners could sue for adverse possession — “squatter’s rights.”

Homeowners calling in today said they can’t sell their homes because of the ownership flap. They also can’t refinance because they can no longer get title insurance.

“Our lives are on standstill and we’re scared,” a woman told McCaskill.

Others calling today said the issue also threatens development at the lake.