WESTERLY — The Westerly Town Council can stop plans to remove the dam across the Pawcatuck River at the defunct Potter Hill Mill if it chooses, town officials and others involved with the project say.
The first year of a three-year grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is being used to assess the dam and make recommendations on how to remove it. The coastal and marine habitat restoration grant is focused on removing the dam because scientists say it impedes the passage of fish and eels. The dam is the last remaining one on the river. Proponents say removing the dam will also mitigate flood risk and make the river safer for paddling sports.
Residents who live along the river, both in Westerly and Hopkinton, have raised concerns about the effects of removing the dam. They say its removal will reduce water depths and the width of the river, cause a significant change to wetlands, change the wildlife habitat, and cause the failure of dozens of private wells in both towns. Property values along parts of the river will plummet, the critics say.
Fuss & O'Neill, a Manchester, Conn.-based engineering firm hired under the grant, is assessing the dam and developing options for how to remove the dam. The company is expected to submit a report on its findings and recommendations in time for the Westerly Town Council to review it during a meeting scheduled for Oct. 18.
The town is both the lead sponsor of the project and the recipient of the NOAA grant. Additional funding is expected to be available from NOAA for the second and third years of the grant. The project also involves the work of the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, state Department of Environmental Management, the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District, and the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association.
"The grant is fairly focused on removal so I don't know how deep a dive Fuss & O'Neill would have gone on other options so I think we need to take a look at that," Town Council President Sharon Ahern said during the council's meeting on Monday. "If we are not satisfied that other options have been properly explored then I think we need to dive deep down into what are the options council has."
She went on to say the council might decide to pursue other grants to address the dam.
Although former Town Manager J. Mark Rooney authorized a contract amendment that calls for Fuss & O'Neill to begin work under the second year of the grant, Ahern said, "Year two is not something we have to do ... we do have the option, legally, to terminate that."
Some of the critics have proposed closing or removing the dam's failing sluice way gates as an alternative. The mill property is subject to a Superior Court receivership proceeding. The town petitioned a Superior Court judge to put the property into receivership after trying for decades to have owners of the property clean up the mill or tear it down.
Removal of the dam is called for in the town's comprehensive plan and emerged as a priority during a resiliency workshop sponsored by the Nature Conservancy and the state Infrastructure Bank in 2019.
John Dorsey, the court appointed lawyer who is serving as special master in the mill receivership case, explained that the receivership case was instigated by town officials who were looking for a way to address public nuisance, health and safety problems posed by the dilapidated mill, and to assess the condition of the dam.
"This is a situation where the town has inherited these problems and has worked with [me] to resolve some of these issues," Dorsey said.
Dorsey and town officials have discussed the possibility of converting the mill property into a public open space for recreation. Dorsey said he would consider the council's desires before asking the judge who is overseeing the receivership case for permission or instructions to proceed.
"There may be options where the town can perform maintenance but not take on liability for the dam or there may be options where the town decides not to move forward and would like [me] to explore the market," or the town could "decide it does have an interest to take ownership and responsibility," Dorsey said.
Councilor Philip Overton suggested the council invite representatives from the state and federal agencies involved with the project to attend a council meeting to discuss the project and options for addressing the dam.
Councilor Christopher Duhamel said he agreed with Overton. "The Town Council doesn't have the expertise on what is environmentally optimal for the river and the ecology of the river. If the the dam was viable and it lasted 200 years and provides for wetlands habitat, wouldn't the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and DEM recognize that?" Duhamel said.
Ahern said the council should review the Fuss & O'Neill report before inviting the agencies to attend a meeting.
Councilor Suzanne Giorno said council members had heard from several individuals who are concerned about the potential ramifications of removing the dam.
Peter Ogle, a Westerly resident, said the current dam removal project should be stopped and alternatives explored. Removing the dam will harm large segments of wetlands and the river's current eco-system, Ogle said. He also suggested invasive species will take root in mudflats that will appear if the dam is removed and the river narrows.
"We need alternative plans for the dam and fish ladder and disregard the ones that are being proposed," Ogle said.
State Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Westerly, submitted a letter asking the council to drop the current dam removal project. A less-intrusive project that would cause the river's water level to drop might be worth pursuing, Kennedy said in the letter.
Gina Fuller, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District, said removal of the dam has been established as a priority for the region for several years. She encouraged the council to follow Overton's recommendation to invite experts from the agencies involved with the project to a council meeting to discuss the project and the concerns raised by residents.
The council recently approved the expenditure of $400,000 to be used toward the cost of demolishing the mill buildings. The council anticipates the funds would be reimbursed by the federal government under the American Rescue Act, a COVID-19 relief effort. The council conditioned its approval of the expenditure on a judge issuing an administrative lien on the mill property to give the town an opportunity to recoup the funds.
The council is also seeking a court order stating the town will not be held liable for legal issues that arise from the mill.