Robert Vawter

A “Man of Honor” at Garnet Lake: Robert J. (Bob) Vawter





Not long after Bob Vawter was diagnosed with ALS, he reflected on the values that had informed his successful, productive life and would sustain him until his death on February 17, 2024.  They boiled down to the fundamentals, he said, which are summed up in the Boy Scout oath:


       On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.


Serving God?  Bob was deeply religious and an active church member at the Jonesville United Methodist Church, not far from his home in Ballston Lake. Doing his duty? As a young man, he had served for a time in the Army. Helping other people?  During his legal career, he had worked in the office of the NYS Attorney General (AG): first in the Real Property Bureau, then briefly in the Environmental Bureau, and finally for 34 years in the Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau, remaining there until his 2009 retirement.


“Working on consumer fraud gave me the chance to help the little guy.,” he said once. “We would pursue cases where we could help the poor and vulnerable, who were being victimized.  It was wonderful!  I really felt like I was doing good work.”


He served others in another way, too:  as a volunteer Scout master and then troop committee chairman, doing hikes, outings, sleepovers —you name it—with troops of “his boys,” as he called them.  One of those boys was his own son, David, who reached the rank of Eagle Scout through determination and hard work—a very proud moment for both of them.  Later, Bob also became a volunteer tour guide at the Saratoga Battlefield National Park, using his lifelong love of history to educate visitors about the Revolutionary War.


“Bob Vawter was a practical man, and no question was too small (how to keep those pipes from freezing over the winter) or too large (how to keep the DEC from ruining the lake),” says Bob Wiltenburg, a friend and neighbor on Garnet Lake.  “But he was also a man of honor, always straightforward with you on any question, and always ready to help anyone in any way he could.”


And “morally straight”?  Bob was wholly devoted to the most crucial thing of all: his own family.  Not only did he have his wife Mary, a nurse, by his side for 48 years including the eight difficult years of his final illness. But he also had his children, David (with wife Megan) and Teresa (with husband Michael McNeany) along with his six beloved grandchildren:  Kaylee, Madison, and Ava Vawter; Zachary, Ethan, and Hannah McNeany.


Along with his two sisters, he had grown up in the pleasant village of Kenmore, near Buffalo, the only son of Dorothy and James Vawter.  His dad, a World War II veteran, had a tool-and-die business in the basement, inherited from his father:  He made “fluidometers,” clock-like devices that controlled the mixing of asphalt for freeway construction.  But that business was petering out by the 1970s, and Bob’s father told him to pursue a different career.


So, he went off to Harpur College (now part of SUNY Binghamton) followed by Albany Law School, graduating in 1973 and then joining the AG’s office. After a few years, he arrived in Consumer Frauds and soon had the chance to do public advocacy work and consumer protection—areas that he loved. One case stood out for him.  After a major ice storm north of Albany, he led an effort to prosecute greedy price-gougers, who were selling generators, flashlights, and other gear at vastly inflated prices. For this work he won the prestigious Louis Lefkowitz Award. 


All this while, he and Mary, whom he met while a law student, were raising their young family.  On one vacation, they decided to try Garnet Lake Lodge.  “We fell in love with the place right away,” said Bob later.  “It was a perfect fit for our kids with the swimming and outdoor activities.” Year after year, they came up —and finally they decided to hunt for their own cottage on the lake.  They tried to buy “Redfield’s Roost,” but the owners decided to stay.  The next season, a home on the hill along the eastern side of the lake came available—and though it needed significant repair, they bought it and transformed it into a comfortable cottage: “Vawter’s View.”


Soon they got acquainted with their neighbors, especially the fascinating older folks from the World War II generation: especially, the Scotts, Stewarts and Bordens.  In fact, Leon Borden, who played “Taps” every evening, was the first neighbor to greet them, and he invited them to take part in the horseshoe tournament at the annual meeting.


Although Mary liked to kayak, Bob adored his fast but hard-to-control Laser—which occasionally landed him in the water.  He and Mary also liked to hike. One September, they were all alone as they walked beyond Lizard Pond on the snowmobile trail to Baldwin Springs. All of a sudden, they heard an ominous crashing in the trees, and a large male bear came sliding down a pine tree, fireman-style. He reared up on his hind legs and studied them, then huffed and lumbered slowly away.


When he was needed, he also got involved in the lake’s legal matters, especially those related to the dam—and his wise advice proved prescient. Says lawyer Robert Borden, also a Garnet Lake neighbor: “In my and Roy Keats’ opinion, Bob’s insistence on complying with the new regulations, his participation in our creation of the required Emergency Action Plan and in the selection and hiring of a professional engineering firm to perform the required Engineering Assessment—together with his creation of the Inspection and Maintenance Procedure and supervision of that procedure—were critical in avoiding the dreaded penalty of having our dam removed, at our expense, and the draining of our beautiful Garnet Lake.”


The lake was his refuge and joy, says Mary Vawter.  “What Bob loved most about the lake was the all-encompassing beauty of nature that surrounded him and being able to interact physically with it. It was his little slice of heaven and, he hoped, a legacy to his family.”



Robert Borden and Roy Keats’ notes regarding Bob Vawter’s involvement with GLCA Dam Committee


The Garnet Lake Civic Association, Inc. (now, the Garnet Lake Conservation Association, Inc. or GLCA) owns the dam at the north end of Garnet Lake. NYS issued revised Dam Safety Regulations, effective August 19, 2009, applicable to all dams classified as “Class C- High Hazard.”  The dam had previously been designated by the NYS Dept of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as a Class C dam.  The revised Regulations required that owners of subject dams take several steps to remediate the potential loss of life and property in the event of a dam failure, at the expense of the dam owners.   Bob—together with many others, including Cindy and Paul Beer, Roy and Sue Keats, Bob Manning, and Pete Parker—began working to understand the scope of the revised regulations and their applicability to Garnet Lake.

Rob Borden, who with his siblings owns a cottage on the lake, first became aware of the impact of the revised regulations on Garnet Lake during a public meeting held on Bob Manning’s property.  Bob Vawter’s presentation reinforced two significant issues for Garnet Lake residents:  the fact, in his opinion, that the revised dam safety regulations would be enforced by NYS and that the penalty for failing to comply included removal of the dam by NYS at the owners’ expense. 

Bob’s firm opinion that NYS would enforce the regulations was informed by his experience as an attorney in the NYS Attorney General’s office and in the NYS Environmental Bureau.  His legal career included enforcement of similar laws and regulations.  \ Bob’s view was that not only would the regulations be enforced, but that the applicability to owners of subject dams as defined in the regulations would be read broadly to include any property owner or other person or entity that benefits from the dam’s existence.  “Owner” is defined in the regulations as follows: “Owner” means any person or local public corporation who owns, erects, reconstructs, repairs, maintains, or uses a dam or other structure which impounds waters.”

Bob believed that the term “use” of a dam would be read broadly by NYS to include all property owners both above and below the Garnet Lake dam.

As an attorney in private practice, Rob Borden appreciated Bob’s legal background and valued his opinion on these issues.  Rob joined the “Dam Committee” of the GLCA in 2011. Rob, Bob, Roy Keats, Bob Manning, Pete Parker, Cathy Stewart, and other committee members were delegated the task of responding to the regulations.  Rob Borden served as chair for a few years as the group wrestled with the decisions as to whether and how to comply with the burdensome and expensive dam safety requirements.  The committee also addressed how to bring non-GLCA members into the fold to help fund the expense and also solicited involvement by the Town of Johnsburg, owner of the public Cross Road which sits on top of the dam.   Bob was an active member of the Dam Committee and served with Rob as co-vice presidents of the GLCA, with Cathy Stewart as President.

There was significant doubt among GLCA members and non-members as to the actual risk to Garnet Lake owners of non-compliance at the time.  Bob was adamant that the regulations would be enforced and that all Garnet Lake owners would be held liable for failure to comply.

Many of the Committee members recall Bob’s rejection of the view of others that we should just ignore the dam safety compliance requirements and dismiss the potential liability to all owners, whether members of the GLCA or not.   Bob remained adamant that to preserve the lake for all to enjoy we had to take the necessary steps to comply with the safety regulations.

Roy Keats recalls that one of the new dam safety requirements was to establish an Inspection and Maintenance (I&M) Procedure to make sure that high-hazard dams were monitored monthly. Bob put together the GLCA’s I&M Procedure and created inspection forms to be completed following each inspection. He then sought out volunteers to do these monthly inspections and instructed them in what to look for and how to fill out the forms. Bob collected the inspection forms and then completed the certifications required by DEC. He also headed up the GLCA’s annual dam cleanups which typically happened the day after the annual meeting. In 2019 this cleanup was increased to two to three per year. He did this until his health problems caused him to relinquish the position.   

Bob was one of the first to notice that the land parcel, including the auxiliary spillway to the west of the dam, was advertised as for sale by the owner in 2013.  He informed the seller’s real estate agent of the purpose of the auxiliary spillway and the right of the GLCA to the use of the spillway in compliance with NYS DEC dam safety requirements. In 1989, DEC had ordered that the GLCA expand the flow capacity of the dam to meet requirements for Class C Dams.  Cathy Stewart’s father, Ed Stewart (also a prominent attorney) had negotiated for an easement in favor of the GLCA over the owner’s land to allow for the creation the auxiliary spillway.  At the time, the clearing of the land and its dedication as an auxiliary spillway was sufficient to avoid more drastic changes to the dam.

Bob understood that expansion of the dam into the auxiliary spillway would likely be required by the DEC to meet the new 2009 dam safety requirements.  He recommended that the GLCA purchase the auxiliary spillway land from the owner to allow for that expansion.  Cathy Stewart led successful negotiations with the owner to acquire title to the land.  The deed included an easement in favor of the current owner of the abutting land parcel, which permits the owner to use the spillway and lakefront for recreational use.  Bob recommended that the easement be restricted to the extent required to comply with future DEC dam safety requirements.

Rob Borden and Roy Keats believe that Bob’s insistence on complying with the new regulations, his participation in our creation of the required Emergency Action Plan and in the selection and hiring of a professional engineering firm to perform the required Engineering Assessment, his creation and supervision of the I&M Procedure, together with his leadership in obtaining title to the auxiliary spillway land was critical to avoiding the dreaded penalty of having our dam removed, at our expense, and the draining of our beautiful Garnet Lake.

Postlogue:  Bob’s views as to the likelihood of enforcement of the new regulations by NYS and liability payment of dam removal expense, plus penalties for failure to comply, has been confirmed in subsequent court proceedings.  In one example, nearly a decade after the NYS DEC commissioner ordered Rainbow Lake dam near Indian Lake to be removed or repaired and after years of litigation, the dam was removed in 2021 at  the expense of the owners, including payment of a $15,000 penalty in a settlement with NYS.