2016-12-02 / Front Page

Selectmen: We need to talk about dams, now

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Now that Kennebunk residents have weighed in, selectmen say it’s time to have a pubic debate on the future of the Mousam River dams, a topic that has already dominated talk of the town for at least three years.

In a series of three non-binding referendum votes petitioned onto the Nov. 8 general election ballot, a clear majority of voters came down in favor of keeping the dams in place.

On whether the Kennebunk Light and Power District, or some other entity, should continue to generate hydropower at the three dams, 66.1 percent said yes, 5,061 to 2,261, with 334 blank ballots in the mix.

On the question of whether water levels along the river should be maintained as they are now, regardless of whether the dams continue to generate power — in other words, should the dams remain in place — 69.5 percent said yes, 5,318 to 2,048, counting 290 blank ballots.

Finally, on the idea that the public should get a chance to vote on any change in the dams’ status quo, 76.4 percent found that to be a better option than leaving the final say to KLP trustees, in a 5,852 to 1,493 vote that saw 311 blanks ballots.

“I think the residents have clearly spoken to the town, and we represent the town,” Selectman Blake Baldwin said at the Nov. 22 board meeting. “It’s our obligation to take the next step, which is to figure out what, if anything, we can do. We can’t whistle past the graveyard on this anymore.”

At that meeting, selectmen voted unanimously to invite KLP trustees to a Jan. 17 tete-a-tete on the final fate of the dams. A number of interested residents were in the audience at that session, but none bothered to take the microphone after chairman Richard Morin advised the board would entertain only a narrow scope of public comment.

“Our purpose tonight is to agree to a meeting in the future,” he said. “No disrespect intended, but we are not going to start the discussion here prior to the two boards coming together.”

Whether power district trustees will accept the selectmen’s invite is unknown. Trustees had a meeting Tuesday evening, which took place after the deadline for this week’s Post.

Although no agenda was posted to the KLP website as of Tuesday morning, selectboard scuttlebutt had it that they would vote on whether to populate their side of the table at the Jan. 17 special meeting.

“The last time we talked about this the KLP board had no interest in talking to us,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said. “But I have personally talked to two trustees and I’m sure at this point they are willing to discuss this with us.”

One of the KLP trustees, David “Duffy” Cluff, is Christopher Cluff’s father. He owns Duffy’s Tavern and Grill, located in the Lafayette Center building on Route 1 next to the KLP dam.

On June 15, KLP trustees voted to stop making power at the dam, due to the age and deteriorating condition of the generator located in the basement of the Lafayette Center. The equipment reportedly dates to 1923. The dame itself was rebuilt in 1951. Duffy Cluff abstained from that show of hands, as well as a second, otherwise unanimous, vote to notify the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), that KLP will not seek to renew it power-making licenses.

The FERC notification does not actually expire until 2022, but the red tape labyrinth that must be navigated for renewal is laborious enough — estimated by KLP officials to take up to five-years and $1.3 million in administrative costs — that a March 2017 due date was set for notifying FERC of which was the water flows.

That deadline has loomed long enough that interested parties have been weighing in for some time. At first, the conversation seemed to be dominated by environmental groups, such as the Mousam and Kennebunk River Alliance, who were keen to remove the dams and allow the river to return to its natural, unobstructed flow — at least through Kennebunk, as several dams not under KLP’s purview would remain upriver.

During the past 18 months, or so, voices began to chime in on the other side, driven, at least in part, by concern for property values should the Mousam be reduced to a feared-trickle, in comparison to its current girth. On front lawns on ether side of the river, signs reading, “Save the Mousam” began to dot the landscape.

In June, that tide of sentiment carried Daniel Bartilucci into office as a KLP trustee. The June 15 vote took place before he was sworn into office, with the person he defeated at the polls, Michael Jordan still residing on the board.

At the Nov. 22 selectmen’s meeting, Bartilucci made it known that he, at least, is in favor accepting the board’s request for a sit-down, regardless of when or where.

“I’ll make the meeting anytime you want,” he said.

Still, some, like Selectman Ed Karytko, wondered aloud what might be accomplished from any joint bull session.

“I guess I’d have to ask what the purpose of the meeting is going to be,” he said. “It just seems that KLP doesn’t want to touch the dams. They don’t want the dams anymore. We know that. I think the only thing we could as them is, OK if you don’t want the dams, would you give them to us?”

Karytko said Town Manager Barry Tibbetts floated that as a possibility “a number of months ago.”

However, most on the board agreed that possibility hinges on the price tag, an expenditure that could be sizable, presuming an expected federal mandate to install fish ladders if the dams remain in place.

“It’s really important that we understand, and that the entire town understands, the entire cost associated with any of these options, from all the different aspects,” Selectman Shiloh Schulte said.

In a 90-page report prepared for KLP in the fall of 2015, and updated this past May, Portland engineering firm Wright-Pierce predicted it could cost as much as $11.68 million to relicense the three Mousam dams, including construction costs for fish ladders. Adding interest and inflation over the life of bonds needed to fund the project could push that outlay as high as $16.9 million, Wright-Pierce reported.

Schulte said he did not want to “reinvent the wheel” and have the town spend money on a new engineering report. However, Baldwin suggested that KLP-deniers who have debated the Wright-Pierce calculations might not be wrong.

“What’s missing here is an agreed-upon set of facts, and that’s troubling,” he said. “It seems to me we need to arrive at what the real numbers are in order to make an informed decision, because the only people who are going to prosper if we do not get our heads together and come up with a solution to this problem are consultants and attorneys.”

Schulte agreed there will be much wrangling over the numbers should the town step in to try and maintain one or more of the dams. However, time is running out to pick a number most power-brokers can agree on, even then, there’s no guarantee voters will like it,

“At some point, we are going to have to agree on the number that’s going to go on a bond issue, and it could be a very large number,” he said.

Morin pointed out other borrowing requests could influence any vote on the issue, if it comes to that. On Nov. 29, selectmen were slated to workshop a $1.6 million proposal to remake the transfer station that could be included in next year’s annual town budget. There’s also talk of spending as much as $2.4 million on a highway garage makeover, he said, while the police department is in need of a new station — at least in Morin’s view. He called the current station “a cracker box.”

With those and other projects on the drawing board, selectmen agreed that, after years of hand-wringing, the hour has come to cross the Rubicon.

“We all understand, it’s showtime now,” Karytko said. “We have to look at this very carefully and very intelligently and come up with some sort of decisions.”

But the question remains, if power district directors agree to a meeting, will it result in substantive talks and actionable data.

“I don’t want it to be two and three hours of dog-and-pony show of stuff we’ve already had,” Selectman Deborah Beal said.

“If they decline our offer are we going to meet anyway?” Selectman Dan Boothby asked.

Chris Cluff said he expects the joint meeting will happen. The invitation to meet will not just be an offer, he suggested, but an offer they can’t refuse.

“We are going to send them a very strongly worded letter,” he said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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