MACHIAS, Maine — More than 100 residents and business owners who would be affected if the tidal gates were removed from the dike on the Middle River made their positions very clear Wednesday night.
To a person, they were united in their opposition to removing the gates under Route 1 that hold the sea back but allow fresh water to flow through with the tides.
One by one they stood and presented testimony to the Maine Department of Transportation, which is replacing the bridge in the middle of the dike, saying their land would be flooded, their wells poisoned and their businesses ruined.
And it wasn’t just the citizenry that spoke up in opposition to removing the tidal gates. Also voicing their opposition were the Machias Board of Selectmen, the Marshfield Board of Selectmen, the area ATV and snowmobile clubs, state Sen. Kevin Raye and state Reps. David Burns and Howard McFadden.
The key to whether the gates are included in the bridge plan is MDOT’s ability to obtain the necessary construction permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The key to the permits is centered on Atlantic salmon and whether the DEP and Army Corps staffers feel the flappers are impeding salmon survival and habitat.
Residents were visibly relieved when Wendy Mahany of U.S. Fish and Wildlife said that replacing the tidal gates will not affect Atlantic salmon.
“Keeping the flappers will not affect the salmon’s endangered status,” she said.
Mahany said that in the nearby town of Addison — the only other town in Maine with a dike and bridge system similar to Machias — USFW wants to remove the tidal gates, also called flappers, and restore a saltwater marsh.
“But here, in Machias, this is new to us. We just don’t know yet. My agency does have an interest in restoring tidal flow but no decisions have been made,” she said.
Raye said the area’s “greatest fear is of the federal agencies over which we have no control.”
Although the USFW, Maine Fish and Wildlife, Maine Department of Marine Resources, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and a host of other environmental agencies and groups will be advising MDOT on the project, only two — DEP and the Army Corps — will actually issue the permits. Neither agency was represented at the meeting, which disappointed many attendees.
MDOT Project Engineer Devon Anderson explained that at least four meetings will be held on the project — twice what is usually held — because of the project’s complexity. The next meeting will be held in spring 2010. “We’ll have a lot more answers for you then,” Anderson said.
Construction wouldn’t take place until 2013.
The dike has been in place since 1866, according to research done by Valdine Atwood and Lyman Holmes, and the flappers have been in place for 80 years.
“Too much time has gone by,” landowner Christopher Sprague testified. Sprague estimated that he will lose 80 percent of his land if the seawater is allowed back into the Middle River. “There is a 150-year-old ecosystem in place. Why doesn’t this ecosystem take precedence over one that doesn’t yet exist?” he asked.
Sprague said that if the gates are removed, the seawater will slowly rot the vegetation that now exists, turning the area into a stinking, foul mess.
Kathleen Shannon, director of the Machias Area Chamber of Commerce, added, “Mud flats will not entice tourists.” She said at least five area food establishments will be affected by the smell.
Bill Cherry provided a financial perspective of the impact of the flooding, which is expected to flood the Dunkin’ Donuts business complex, because it is below sea level.
“That shopping center has about 50 employees who collectively make $750,000 a year,” Cherry said. Based on the financial theory that each dollar circulated in an area increases by $7, Cherry said that the center’s closure would have a $5 million impact on the Machias area.
Gary Albee, who owns farmland off Route 192, said that road would be flooded if the gates are removed. He said MDOT would have to figure the cost of two bridges into the plan, one on the dike and a second one on Route 102.
Many residents asked MDOT to take their concerns seriously and not just look at the cost of the flappers when assessing the project.
No date has been set for the spring meeting.