WINTERPORT, Maine — Residents have set in motion the possibility that Atlantic salmon could one day spawn along the Marsh Stream.
Residents voted overwhelmingly at a special town meeting Tuesday to rescind a consent agreement that prevented John Jones, owner of the West Winterport Dam, from removing the dam and opening the waterway to spawning species of fish, such as salmon and her-ring.
Town Manager Phil Pitula said Wednesday the consent agreement among the town, Jones and residents of neighboring Frankfort was signed in 2003 after a successful five-year battle aimed at preventing Jones and the salmon restoration group Facilitators Improving Salmonid Habitat, or FISH, from removing the dam.
Marsh Stream forms the boundary between the two towns, both of which signed the agreement. Jones has asked Frankfort to rescind the agreement, too, but the town has not yet decided whether it will.
Pitula said Wednesday that Winterport residents apparently had a change of heart because of the likelihood that the federal government would force Jones to build a fish passageway at the dam now that the Atlantic salmon may be added to the list of endangered species. Because the agreement tied the towns to Jones, the taxpayers could be held liable for the cost of a fish passage, Pitula said.
“I think there might have been a feeling out there to let John do what he wants with his property without interference from the town,” Pitula said of the vote. “With the Atlantic salmon being declared an endangered species, there most likely would be federal action. And with no guarantee of any federal money being available, there was a potential for liability if the town was attached to the agreement.”
Jones operated the dam as a hydroelectric facility under the auspices of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for more than 20 years. Deregulation of electricity in the 1990s made the dam unprofitable and Jones petitioned the agency for permission to remove it.
The towns opposed his request and mounted a legal challenge to his permit applications. Those fighting Jones argued that the 50-acre impoundment behind the dam had long been a popular recreation site and a source of water for fighting fires and that it served as a flood control barrier during spring runoff.
Although Jones obtained a state Department of Environ-mental Protection permit to remove the dam, the two towns threatened to take his 5-acre site by eminent domain if he proceeded. The towns spent about $80,000 fighting Jones’ plan, and Jones and FISH spent more than double that defending the project. The result was the consent agreement.
Now that the property is back under his sole control, Jones said Wednesday he has to either build a mechanical or rock ramp fish passage or remove the dam. He said he was considering the latter, although he would need to apply for another DEP permit to do so.
“It’s a bittersweet situation, but you do what you have to do. I’m an old hydro man so I hate to see it go,” Jones said. “If I’m forced to take it down, I will. I couldn’t do anything without that agreement out of the way. I had to have the town on my side before I could do anything.”
Skowhegan lawyer Clinton “Bill” Townsend, former president of FISH, said he was delighted with the town’s decision. Townsend said Wednesday that while he wished the process had not taken so many years and engendered so much animosity and opposition, “it may have been necessary to go through the pain to get this done.”
Townsend said he hoped that everyone had learned from the situation because good judgment comes from experience. Townsend said he doubted whether he would again pick up the mantle and carry on the fight to remove the dam.
“Whether somebody else will take it on, I don’t know,” Townsend said. “It’s very good news and I’m tickled to death. If John ends up being able to take the dam out, that would be good news.”