I’ll get right to the point. Any change to the Montgomery Dam will not go forward without a public vote. This is a simple fact that has always been true. It is neither a concession nor a compromise, but a basic process requirement that is rooted in the form of government that we have in Camden.

The Select Board is not a City Council. We have no power to allocate funds without voter approval, and that, to me, often comes as a relief. It takes some pressure off. After all, we are elected volunteers and we all know that every aspect of Town decision making is fair game at the grocery store, on social media, the playground with our kids, or anywhere else for that matter.

This is different from the type of government that people are familiar with in the majority of cities and larger towns. We make decisions together. Our job as elected officials is to gather information, evaluate options, and present recommendations to voters for review.

The Select Board will not decide on the Montgomery Dam ourselves, and I doubt any of us would want to. To those of us who are deeply involved in town government, this simple fact becomes so ingrained in us that we forget that it’s not so obvious to the average resident.

I can only speak for myself, but I am sure I’m not alone in the fact that I know, like, and respect many people on all sides of this issue. I firmly believe that every single person involved in this discussion has the community’s best interest at heart.

I have found it interesting to learn about the history of the dams, the river, and the challenges and opportunities they present. I think the same is true for many in the community even if they are understandably a little tired of the conflict. I am too. We all seem to agree that we can do a better job telling both the natural and industrial history of the area.

As a Town, we have shaped the Megunticook River, but the river has also shaped us, and many of us have fallen in love with different aspects of it. As a lifelong Camden resident, I grew up here without an understanding of how one part of the river can impact the other parts, not to mention the entire watershed and out into Penobscot Bay. In 1992, when I was eight years old, a town meeting vote by show of hands accepted the dam with no conditions and minimal public discussion. We have learned a lot since then.

The next big decisions we make about the dam will be the result of robust community discussion and a vote by a lot more people than just those who can show up for an in-person town meeting.

There have always been disagreements and decisions and even legal action around this topic. We have a river running right through our town and it’s a tremendous asset, a gift from Mother Nature that has always been the lifeblood of the Town. It’s not surprising that there is disagreement about who gets to benefit from the river and how it will flow.

Last November, I had just finished voting at the fire station and I walked past the usual line of tables where people were collecting signatures for different causes. The Save the Dam Falls group had a couple people collecting signatures to get a question on the ballot to repair and protect and prevent the removal of the Montgomery Dam. I listened for a bit and heard them explaining to people that they were doing this in order to force the Select Board to let people vote.

“Otherwise, the Select Board is going to make the decision themselves and the people won’t have any say.”

They were using the same talking points that are successful in many petition drives where a citizen referendum is needed in order to force a vote on a decision that would otherwise be out of their hands.

“This is just to get it on the ballot and keep the Select Board from removing the dam without our say.”

“That isn’t true,” I told them. “The only thing the Town is doing now is studying the options. The Select Board isn’t going to make the decision ourselves. We can’t do that.”

I argued with the two people for several minutes as they continued to insist to voters that all they were trying to do was get the question on the ballot so the dam wouldn’t be destroyed without letting the people decide.

It’s a compelling appeal that resonates with anyone who worries about being disenfranchised. By telling people that dam removal is imminent and that signing a petition in favor of preserving the dam can force the issue and give people a chance to vote, it is really easy to generate outrage and suspicion.

The Select Board can’t unilaterally choose to remove the dam any more than we can decide to spend money fixing it that hasn’t been approved by voters.

The petition sought to place a question on the ballot that would commit the town to preserving the Montgomery Dam without any appropriation of funds to do so.

Another petition was circulated at the same time by a different group asking that the Town and Select Board continue to pursue grants from NOAA and other agencies supporting river restoration, including full or partial removal of the Montgomery Dam.

Both petitions garnered 500 or more signatures. The Town attorney recommended that the Select Board not put opposing questions on the ballot because it would be extremely confusing to voters and would disrupt a process that had already gone through the voter approved budget process to evaluate multiple options for improving the flood resiliency of the Megunticook River and restoring habitat.

No construction or alteration decisions can be made without voter approval and there are significant differences in the cost to taxpayers depending on whether the Montgomery Dam is removed, substantially altered, or preserved. Giving people fully developed options for the entire river as a whole depends on fully investigating the short- and long-term costs and design options for Montgomery. What we decide at Montgomery will impact our likelihood of funding options for work done on the rest of the dam sites as well.

This will take longer if we are going to get it right. Fixing the dam over the next few decades involves a lot more than some cosmetic fixes to the spillway. Dams have gotten a lot more expensive over the years as safety and environmental regulations have evolved. This is why there is significant funding available to incentivize towns to move toward more nature-based solutions.

That said, there are many who wish to fully explore all options for preserving the dam as close to the same as possible, and I support taking the time to go through this exercise.

Many other places have gone through a similar process after facing costly repairs to a dam. It is often contentious and complicated, but in the end, a combination of historical preservation and ecological restoration usually results in something everyone can be proud of. No one wants to make this decision alone and no one will be satisfied with anything less than the beauty that we enjoy today.

The choice belongs to Camden voters. It always has and it always will. More information can be found at camdenmaine.gov/news_detail_T50_R74.php.

Keeping vegetation from growing on the dam was previously accomplished by applying Roundup to it but this is one of many practices that is no longer recommended.

 

 

 

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board member. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

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