High price tag delays Branch Lake boat launch

Posted July 20, 2011, at 7:23 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The effort to provide fishermen and boaters with greater access to Branch Lake in Ellsworth appears to have hit yet another setback months before construction was slated to begin on the long-awaited project.

The Maine Department of Conservation received six bids for a boat launch project that was expected to cost $500,000. But the lowest bid came in at $845,000.

“So now we are looking at alternatives to getting the project done,” said George Powell, director of boating facilities within the department’s Bureau of Parks and Lands. “We are talking to the low-bid contractor to see if we can get it done within budget.”

One option: Eliminate a new access road and, instead, allow boat-hauling vehicles to access the launch through Branch View Drive. But such a proposal likely will encounter opposition from some camp owners on the drive.

Located a few miles from downtown Ellsworth, Branch Lake is a 2,700-acre water body that was once a popular recreational spot for boaters and fishermen. The lake is described by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife as having “excellent habitat” for cold-water species, such as landlocked salmon, lake trout and brown trout.

Use of the lake among anglers has declined considerably since 1999, however, when new landowners closed the only boat launch that offered easy access to the lake for all but the smallest boats.

Since then, the effort to build another boat launch has been slowed by disagreements between the state and Ellsworth — which uses Branch Lake for the city’s drinking water — as well as between camp owners and anglers.

After several years of discussions, the city and the state settled on a plan to build the boat ramp on roughly 1,200 acres of state-owned land on the lake’s eastern shore. Access to the ramp would be provided by a new, 6,000-foot-long road intended to bypass the camps.

But Powell said that road represented $610,000 of the $845,000 cost in the low bid.

“We were a bit surprised that the prices were so high,” Powell said.

Ellsworth City Council Chairman Gary Fortier said he was not necessarily surprised the bids came in higher than anticipated given that the cost projections were several years old. The city has seen similar price jumps on its own projects.

But Fortier said the existing City Council has been willing to work with the state on finding a location that provides access while protecting the health of the lake.

“I would suggest the ball is with the state Department of Conservation now to come to Ellsworth and sit down the appropriate people to discuss possibilities,” Fortier said.

One obvious possibility is to route traffic down Branch View Drive, a camp road. Powell said the department would likely have to make several improvements to the road, such as the addition of speed bumps or turnouts.

Any major modifications to the permit would have to be reviewed and approved by the Ellsworth Planning Board, which likely would trigger additional public hearings on the issue.

“So obviously this is going to take some additional time,” Powell said.

Fortier said he personally believes the parties can find a way to use Branch View Drive with some improvements to the road, although he added that is a decision for the city’s Planning Board.

In May 2010, Fortier was among a group of DIF&W biologists and city officials who released the first batch of hatchery-reared landlocked salmon to Branch Lake in a decade. The department stopped stocking Branch Lake in 1999 because fishermen no longer had “equitable access” to the lake compared to lakeshore owners.

Fortier said he has since heard from numerous fishermen excited about the 15- and 16-inch salmon they are catching in the lake. So Fortier said he believes it is imperative that the city find a way to bring the boat launch to fruition.

John Fink, chairman of the Ellsworth Planning Board, said the board would wait to hear back from the department if changes are sought to the permit. How the board proceeds will depend on the scope of the changes, he said.

“The planning board is ready to do whatever it needs to do,” Fink said.

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