CAMDEN — The owners of two businesses built over the Montgomery Dam mill pond and Camden Public Library Trustees showed strong support for preserving elements of the dam, granite wall between the river and Harbor Park and the seawall, during three community conversations hosted by town officials.

The conversations led by Select Board Chair Bob Falciani and Vice Chair Alison McKellar, saying they were acting as private citizens, focused on post-dam removal designs for the Megunticook River and lower Harbor Park from June 27 to July 2.

A Camden Public Library Trustees statement of “benchmarks for endorsing any plan for Montgomery Dam,” is a game changer as town officials have been seeking Trustees’ cooperation with proposals to return the river to a more natural pathway.

The Trustee statement backs preservation of key elements of the Olmstead Brothers-designed Harbor Park, including the massive stone wall that separates the Megunticook River from Harbor Park and the park’s seawall facing Penobscot Bay, which town officials are talking about removing.

Trustees are asking for an open decision-making process involving the public and for costs of town proposals such as fishways and replacing the dam with a boardwalk over a natural falls. They are also asking for drawings that show proposed structures such as replacements for the seawall, in context with highest tide and projected sea level rise elevations.

Business owners and others voiced strong support for preservation of the mill pond behind the dam and the scenic waterfall the dam creates.

Dan Gabriele, owner of Marriner’s Restaurant for 40 years, pointed out Greenland’s ice melting is flooding the seawall, not the Montgomery Dam. He supports raising the seawall to preserve Harbor Park and prevent damage being done to the Public Landing, which contains restrooms, a wastewater pump station and a large generator.

Camden Deli owner Tom Rothwell wants to see meetings about preserving and restoring the Montgomery Dam and “protecting it for generations to come.”

Camden gets ranked one of the most beautiful towns in America year after year, he said. His business, Marriner’s and the Smiling Cow “just thrive over this beauty that we have. That’s our economy. That’s our livelihood. That’s why everyone wants to move here.”

Others taking part in the conversations want to see more information before the town brings the issue of removing the dam to a public vote. Officials were asked for long-term costs of proposed features such as fish passageways up the Megunticook River and a boardwalk over the area where the dam is now. Support for removing the Montgomery Dam was also heard, along with many questions about the town’s plans.

McKellar provided historical and environment information on the dam and the river. Tony Grassi presented concept drawings of a free-flowing Megunticook River after removal of the dam, granite wall and sea wall.

The drawings by Interfluve depict the river running over existing ledge and boulders, and a natural area along the waterfront at Harbor Park, where paved pathways and the seawall are now. Other drawings show screening to hide the structures that hold up the Main Street buildings built over the river, and boardwalks built behind those buildings over a flowing river.

Grassi is a Camden resident, board member of the Nature Conservancy of Maine and headed fundraising to open fish passage on the Penobscot River. He bought and took on the historic restoration of the mill at Freedom Falls, where The Lost Kitchen restaurant is a tenant. He restored that dam to produce hydropower.

Other panelists called on to comment during the presentations included Matt Bernier with National Marine Fisheries Service and Nate Gray, a Maine Department of Marine Resources biologist.

Bernier talked about the seawall flooding due to sea level rise. People born in the 1920s and 30s saw a sea level 6 inches lower than now, he said. Federal funds for addressing structures like the deteriorating seawall are around $30 million, and increasing each year, he said.

Gray spoke about the results in Maine of reopening fish passage for saltwater species that spawn in freshwater.

Rothwell called the drawings of the Main Street buildings without a dam “an absolute eyesore. You take away the pool of water and you have my building on just bedrock.”

“I own land to the edge of the waterfall. I’ve been saying this to engineers visiting my shop. You’re wasting your time talking about boardwalks ’cause I will never give my permission to have a boardwalk built over my property.”

He said he is worked up about this, and not being listened to.

Gabriele said he appreciated “getting to say something,” after waiting for three years.

“We’ve been listening to certain people and outside interests. And you know what? This is our town. Our waterfall. Our mill pond,” he said.

Of McKellar, he said one of the loudest people in the room supporting preservation of the Mary E. Taylor building, when school officials sought to demolish it saying it served no purpose and was too costly to maintain, is now saying the same thing about the dam.

“How can it [the dam] be too costly to maintain when you haven’t spent a penny on it for a decade?” Gabriele said. “How can the dam serve no purpose when it creates a mill pond? It’s part of our history. The seawall is art, architecture, engineering all in one.”

He talked about the dam project going on for a long time “without the people being involved,” and a public vote at town meeting several years ago where money was approved to fix it.

He brought up wording in a press release announcing the community conversations that “doing nothing is not an option.”

“How come doing nothing has been an option for a decade?” He asked if doing nothing is a good strategy when a vote is taken, but not liked by some people in the town office. “And now there’s going to be another vote?”

He also talked about a dire threat of toxic chemicals dumped in the river by former tannery property owners that will end up in Camden Harbor if the dam downstream of where the tannery was is removed.

McKellar asked Bernier to talk about why his agency is funding projects like the Montgomery Dam study. He talked about flooding around the buildings over the mill pond and dam, saying these properties will be harder to insure, and to collect insurance when damaged, because they are in a flood zone.

Smiling Cow owner Meg Quijano said she keeps seeing pictures of her building in presentations as an example of flooding. “But it wasn’t flooded. We have not been flooded in years because Dave [Bolstridge] comes down and raises the gate, so we don’t flood.” She explained what presenters see in the photograph as flooding of a lower level is just a false wall behind the building.

Quijano asked that Main Street business owners be informed by the town of any meeting relating to the dam, saying she found out about the conversation series by reading an article in the paper.

She also asked how she will be able to maintain the support structure beneath her building, if the mill pond, which can be drained, is removed. Jeff Senders, a local engineer, explained how this work can be done during lower seasonal flows, with water diverted from building supports.

Ken Gross questioned why the option of preserving the dam and Harbor Park, discussed in the Interfluve report, was not displayed in the presentation. He also asked why officials were pursuing goals set by federal and state funding, instead of first finding out what the community wants.

Falciani said the town must take a position on changing climate and the sea rising, which affect the public landing and seawall. “This is not all about putting back what man changed hundreds of years ago,” he said.

Town Manager Audra Caler defended the dam and restoration projects as in line with Maine Climate Council goals Camden voters endorsed at a special town meeting in February. She also talked about having the fulfill obligations that come with funding Camden has obtained.

Gross argued for evaluating costs and benefits — not just dollar costs — but “the costs to the town that would be entailed by destroying the dam and Harbor Park.”

He referenced the Interfluve report, which he said states the dam “does not now and will not in the future contribute to flooding of downtown.” Whether the dam is there or removed, there is no difference in a flood event from the Bagel Café up, he said.

He turned to a chart in the report, displaying costs for 10 different options. “The least expensive option is preserving Montgomery Dam,” he said.

Other speakers asked questions about dam removal, goals of reducing flooding and environment benefits.

Dave Jackson, director of the library’s parks spoke on behalf of Trustees. “We recognize sea level is rising and something needs to be done with the dam, that the seawall either needs to be repaired or rebuilt and that some of Harbor Park will need to be sacrificed. We just hope that the integrity of the Olmstead design will be preserved to the extent possible,” he said.

At the July 2 session, Falciani told opponents to dam removal the community conversations were not the place to continue to air their views. There would be other meetings for that purpose before the Select Board and public hearings he hoped they would attend, he said. He emphasized opposing views were not being shut down.

The community conversations were set up to hear what citizens want to see in designs for the removal of the dam, he said.

However, the Camden Public Library Trustees statement read by Camden Public Library director Nikki Maounis challenged the concept drawings shown by presenters and many of the assumptions they expressed about removing the dam wall along Harbor Park and part of the seawall.

“It is important that Harbor Park be preserved as close to the original state as possible,” the Trustees state, “including the pathways. The original Olmsted design transported visitors into a quiet, scenic park, secluded from the busy streets of Camden. The historical and scenic value of the Olmsted design cannot be overstated. It is a treasure.”

The town of Camden is in its fourth year of studying options for the Montgomery Dam.

In 2018, McKellar talked to the Select Board about the issue, and the board decided to evaluate the costs of repairing, maintaining and operating the Montgomery Dam as well as the environmental benefits from dam removal.

Caler found federal and state grant money for the Interfluve study.

In 2019, the Montgomery Dan study was presented at a forum in Camden by Mike Burke of Interfluve and Gray. The report covers full and partial removal of the dam as well repairing and maintaining the existing dam, fish passage, river channel conditions, sediment, environmental and historical issues and long-term costs of various options.

At the forum, Caler confirmed the town would study removal only of three dams on the river, the Montgomery Dam and two privately-owned dams at the Knox Mill, and not the Seabright and East and West dams that control water levels in the upper river and Lake Megunticook.

Since 2019, the full Select Board has not discussed the Montgomery Dam report, or the Megunticook River study which is underway. The topic is relegated to board member reports, where officials share information. McKellar updates the board on matters related to river restoration.