Possible Machias dike worries landowners

Posted Aug. 26, 2009, at 9:46 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — No one disputes that major repairs are required on the U.S. Route 1 causeway, locally known as The Dike, that crosses the mouth of the Middle River at Machias Bay.

Wooden cribwork has been damaged by seawater over time, and minor repairs made in the past few years are not holding up.

But local property owners are wary of one of two repair options that the Maine Department of Transportation is considering. The controversial option would remove the tidal gates in the dike.

“It would be an environmental disaster,” Chris Sprague of Marshfield said this week. Sprague has 90 acres along the river, where in 1996 he and his father built a family home.

Marshfield’s town line is less than a half-mile upriver from the dike in Machias.

If DOT removes the tidal gates, Sprague said, he would lose 90 percent of his land.

His hayfields would be underwater, according to Sprague. Habitat for deer, moose, fisher, pheasants, American bittern and other wildlife, as well as a historic sulky racetrack and a snowmobile trail, also would be underwater.

There is even a chance that the Dunkin’ Donuts shop on the eastern, freshwater end of the dike, which is constructed just 6 inches above the high tide mark, could be flooded.

“This is a unique habitat that has been established over 150 years,” Sprague said. “If they allow the seawater to rush in, it will affect 10 Machias property owners and 55 Marshfield property owners. Some properties will completely disappear. To lose all this would be heartbreaking.”

DOT officials confirmed this week that state and federal environmental agencies are very interested in returning the Middle River to a tidal river, which was changed when the tidal gates were put in place in the 1800s. Removing the tidal gates would allow sea run fish to return upriver.

The DOT is in the very early stages of the project, which would not be completed for three to four years and could cost $4 million to $5 million.

“I don’t think anyone should get upset yet,” state Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Washington County, said this week. “No final decisions have been made.”

Raye and DOT officials have stated that all options are still on the table and the state wants to hear from everyone before a plan is made final.

The DOT plans to hold public hearings as soon as December, but has not set any dates.

The culverts were installed more than 80 years ago, DOT Project Manager Devon Anderson said this week and contain four tidal or flapper valves that hold the seawater back when the tide fluctuates.

Anderson said two options are being seriously considered. One would replace the tidal valves and construct a new bridge or causeway which would look and act much like what exists today.

The second option, which is the one opposed by those living on the river, would install a traditional bridge over at least part of the river and allow the tide to flow freely back and forth into the river basin.

DOT officials described different possible scenarios for the project.

Division Supervisor Dale Dowdy said that it “doesn’t matter whether we construct a bridge or a dike, it would still have [tidal] gates.”

At the same time, Judy Gray of the environmental division of the DOT could not guarantee that the flappers would remain in place, even if that is what residents want.

“Unfortunately, what was legal 100 years ago may not pass muster today,” Gray said this week.

Gray said she was concerned that the DOT might be unable to obtain the necessary permits to reinstall tidal gates.

Anderson explained that all options “will get weighed into the process. Everything is still on the table and that’s what the public hearings will be about.”

He said funding for the project — a combination of state and federal money — won’t be released until October and a series of public meetings will be held beginning in December.

“These are what we call blank plan hearings,” Anderson said. “The public definitely should feel confident that their voices will be heard.”

Anderson said DOT also will take into consideration the existing use of the dike, a place of commerce and socialization. Flea markets spontaneously appear each weekend and the dike provides a highly visible, highly trafficked location for vendors selling everything from fresh fish and clams to homemade birdhouses.

Cars also gather to watch the wildlife, tide changes and sunsets.

Both Anderson and Gray said offsets or mitigations will not play a role in the project. Gray explained that offsets are credits for allowing land to return to its natural state which can be banked for use in other projects.

“From my perspective, offsets do not play a big role,” Anderson said.

“Our intention is to hear everyone’s voice,” Gray said. “We will be looking at the whole package — traffic, safety, costs, public uses and property rights.”

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