WESTERLY — Complete removal of the Potter Hill Mill dam and creation of a riffle-pool channel is the approach recommended by an environmental engineering firm hired to study ways to improve fish passage at the Pawcatuck River location.

The recommendation is outlined in a 454-page field investigation and alternatives assessment technical memorandum produced by the firm Fuss & O'Neil of Providence. The firm was hired under a three-year National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant the town secured. Representatives of the firm are scheduled to discuss their findings and recommendations with the Town Council during a meeting scheduled for Monday at Town Hall at 5:30 p.m. in Council Chambers.

Some residents of both Westerly and Hopkinton, most of whom live along the river, have banded together to oppose removal of the dam, saying it would hurt boating opportunities and reduce property values by changing the look of the river. Fuss & O'Neil and the Nature Conservancy, one of the partners in the grant project, say removing the dam is the best way to improve fish passage, restore the natural ecology of the river and mitigate flood risk.

The report by Fuss & O'Neil notes that close to $10 million of funding from federal and state agencies have been secured since 2005 to address five main stem restoration projects on the river, including the removal of the White Rock Dam, Lower Shannock Falls Dam, the construction of two nature-like fishways at the former Bradford and Kenyon Mill Dams, and the installation of a technical fishway at the Horseshoe Falls Dam.

"The Potter Hill Dam is the only remaining barrier on the main stem river which impacts river ecology and ecological functioning, limits migratory fish passage, increases flood risk both downstream and upriver of the dam, and negatively affects water quality and recreation uses such as canoeing and kayaking," the report states.

The recommended approach would result in removal of the dam, lowering  the river’s channel bed at the spillway approximately 8.5 feet, removal of the concrete fish ladder, regrading/partially filling the abandoned millrace channels on the western riverbank, and stabilizing the channel bed and riverbanks with vegetation and natural stone. A natural riffle-pool channel would be constructed to provide improved flow conditions to facilitate passage of migratory fish through the site.

The mill and dam are both the subjects of a Superior Court receivership case, which the town of Westerly initiated after decades of failed negotiations aimed at having the property owners either stabilize or demolish the mill buildings.

Members of the Town Council have said in recent weeks that they would use the report from Fuss & O'Neil to help guide their decisions on whether to move forward with the second and third years of the grant.

In other business, the Town Council will conduct a public hearing on a proposed ordinance aimed at regulating the short-term rental industry. The ordinance would limit the ability to rent property on a short-term basis to owner-occupied properties or those that use the services of a property manager. It would also establish a $100 annual registration fee. The council is expected to vote on whether to adopt the ordinance following the public hearing.

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