A month before three towns are set to vote on an $850,000 project to replace the Lake Fairlee Dam, its private owner is voicing objections that could call the deal into jeopardy.
In phone interviews this week, Bryan Gregory, 62, a Maine resident who plans to retire to a Thetford camp house perched on top of the dam that has been in his family for generations, called one of his concerns a deal-breaker.
“That’s a make or break for me,” Gregory said about a concern related to proposed modifications to a walkway over the dam, the only way to access the house. “I’ll try to raise the money [for the dam repairs] through the Internet or whatever.”
Gregory said that he is not against the project as a whole, but said his lingering questions need to be resolved. He’s worried that the modifications to the walkway could decrease his privacy by making it seem like it’s a walkway for public use, and has some reservations about giving the dam to the towns.
“It depends on how it’s being worded,” said Gregory, who said he raised the concerns with officials a month ago. “How do you own a property and you have to go across a town walkway to it? I don’t know how it would work.”
Meanwhile, the chairman of a committee that has been working toward a solution to the ailing dam for the past three years said he is hopeful the issues can be resolved before residents in the three towns that border the lake — Thetford, Fairlee and West Fairlee — vote next month on the replacement project and an agreement among the towns that would allow them to share in the dam’s control.
“We need to get it resolved so that it’s not an issue that could cause voter concern,” Frank J. Barrett Jr., who is also the Fairlee Selectboard chairman, said on Wednesday.
Barrett said that while the committee has been aware for about a month that Gregory’s concerns were serious, he did not realize that any were “make or break” for Gregory. Barrett said settling the concerns has been pushed to the back burner while the three towns dealt with other aspects of the complicated project, including coordinating the May 19 bond votes.
Barrett said the votes could still go forward if the issue is not resolved ahead of time, but he said the conversations with Gregory will now be prioritized.
Engineers have said the dam will fail if not repaired, which would shrink Lake Fairlee’s shoreline and leave stinking mudflats in front of $64 million worth of lakefront property.
In turn, committee officials — in agreement with the towns’ selectboards — said that the subsequent hit on each town’s grand list would lead to an increase in taxes for non-lakefront property owners to make up the difference.
The two questions on the May 19 ballots will ask residents to give the towns authority to bond for their shares of the project and to approve an “interlocal agreement” that would allow the towns to take control of the dam and establish a system to oversee its care. Using a setup based on equalized shoreline property value, the bond principal and interest would be $482,000 in Thetford, $373,00 in Fairlee and $241,000 in West Fairlee.
Gregory said he does not have the funds to fix the dam, and Barrett has said Gregory is currently under no obligation to do so. Barrett has said the committee preferred to work with Gregory and his sister, Kim Baker, instead of fighting an eminent domain battle that could be costly and lengthy.
At issue for Gregory is the access to his camp house over a branch of the Ompompanoosuc River. Part of the dam also carries a walkway over the water, the only way to access the camp house, and currently has one old hand rail. A small amount of water sometimes gushes over it during the spring.
The new design calls for that part of the walkway to be raised three feet so that water does not run over the walkway and for two handrails to be installed.
Under the committee’s proposal, the camp house and land would remain privately owned by Gregory and his sister, while the dam would be a piece of publicly owned property — but not open to the public, much like a wastewater treatment plant, Barrett said. The town would retain a right-of-way for dam repairs, but the walkway’s sole purpose would be for access to the camp house, not for dam maintenance.
Barrett said the design changes are required for safety and liability reasons — so that none of the towns nor the engineers, DuBois & King, could be found negligent if Gregory, his family or visitors slips on rushing water or ice.
But Gregory said that the elevation and handrails give the impression that the dam is open for the public to walk on. He found them to be “totally unnecessary” and an affront to a design that has worked for decades.
He said members of the public have been increasingly trespassing in the years since the dam came into the spotlight.
“The last two years I have experienced numerous people come down on the dam thinking that they own the dam now, and I’m afraid that’s what’s going to happen with all this publicity going on,” he said. “If they want to fix the dam, that’s fine, but leave it the way it was.”
Gregory said an additional concern is the location where another structure, called the “shady house,” will be placed after the dam replacement. The new plans call for it to be set back from the dam, which he said will decrease the deterrent to people walking on the dam.
Barrett said he’s hopeful that some “private property” signs might be enough to deter members of the public from walking on Gregory’s property, and he’s interested in investigating the possibility of a legal agreement in which Gregory would release the towns and engineers of any liability if he, his family, his guests and future property owners suffer injuries on the walkway if it is replaced identically to its current state.
“I don’t know if something like that is a doable legal document, but I think that’s the question that needs to be asked,” Barrett said.
Gregory said if something like that were possible, he would be interested in it “as it long as (the dam) goes back the way it was,” but he still needs his concerns as a whole addressed.
Note: Maggie Cassidy is a reporter for the Valley News, where this story first appeared. It was reposted here through a partnership with the newspaper.