CAMDEN – “It could kill this town,” Select Board member Marc Ratner said July 20 in a board meeting after hearing resident concerns about the potential removal of the Montgomery Dam.

Ratner, Town Manager Audra Caler and Vice Chair Alison McKellar stressed the need to address the risk of flooding when looking at whether to remove the dam. Their concerns were expressed in the face of opposition from some in the town to a change in the look of the waterfront.

Ratner said his concern is not whether fish can travel up the river, but if the dam and waterfall pose a flood risk. He said if a hurricane that hit other parts of New England had struck in Camden with heavy rains that flooded the lake and river, “We would have no Smiling Cow, no House of Logan, no Camden Deli. …This is not about fish. It’s about saving our town!”

Caler pressed the board to give town staff guidance on the next step in the process, which is to provide information needed to design the option that would remove the dam. Grant funding would provide for this option.

She said operating the dam is labor-intensive and even dangerous to town staff members.

“We’re putting town employees at risk for the benefit of a few private property owners for purely aesthetic reasons,” she said.

She said it was clear from the report investigating the issue that removal of the dam was the best option and it aligned perfectly with the grant. The goal is to protect the downtown from flooding, restore the natural condition of the river and improve the environment. Climate change is driving flooding and rain events, town officials said.

Caler said the town needs to provide the feedback for this design option by November, though it was noted that it will likely be June of next year at the earliest that any option could be voted on by residents.

Chair Robert Falciani described this step as “putting flesh on the bone of an option.”

Not everyone agrees on this course of action.

Resident Ken Gross said so far he had seen only one design and it was for the most destructive option which was least likely to gain approval from voters.

“No one in town wants to see the waterfall destroyed,” he said.

He proposed the town preserve the dam and add a fish passage, calling this a “win-win.”

Caler responded, “That’s not a win-win. It comes with the highest price tag and the most maintenance. It is not a compromise.” She said this plan failed to address the flooding issue.

She also said the town would not be able to get funding or permitting for a fish ladder without the dam removal. “Make no mistake about it, the reason funding bodies are interested is flood resiliency, and you can’t address flooding without removing the dam.”

Resident Dennis McGuirk said the board had already made the decision of what it wanted to do, which was remove the dam, and said there was no public discussion leading up to that.

Resident Jennifer Healy, wearing a pin reading “Save the Dam Falls,” agreed, saying it feels like the option has already been chosen for them. She said people want to feel like they were part of the process. “There is a piece of the heart and soul in the falls,” she said. “That isn’t going to go away.”

McKellar said the question is what people like about the current shoreline. She said there are options to put waterfalls in place without the dams as part of the project. She stressed the importance of getting a better understanding of the specifics people want and offering them better photos and concept art of what could be done so they can visualize the possibilities for the project.

Officials said the town will hold public hearings on the process as is required before residents vote on any future proposal for the dam.