MACHIAS, Maine — Every summer weekend, beginning at dawn most Friday mornings, dozens of vendors begin pulling into the parking area at the dike across the Middle River in Machias.
The dike has become a gathering place and a local economic engine. An area especially created for the Machias Farmers’ Market offers seasonal produce, while others offer everything from handmade items to antiques to just plain junk.
The dike, however, is in limbo — part of a replacement plan launched several years ago by the Maine Department of Transportation. Hearings were held, meetings were filled with those for and against the plan, and studies were completed, but for more than a year the project has languished as permitting issues stymie DOT officials.
“It’s not the money. It’s permitting,” project engineer Steve Bodge said this week. He said no new hearings or meetings on the project have been held in nearly two years because there is nothing new to report.
“We’re sort of in a holding pattern,” Bodge said.
At a series of public meetings in 2009, DOT officials said the dike’s wooden cribwork had been damaged over time by seawater, and minor repairs made in the past few years were not holding up. It has been estimated by opponents that removing the flappers and allowing the sea back into the river basin would affect 10 Machias property owners and 55 Marshfield property owners and create what they have called “an environmental catastrophe.”
The issue of replacing or removing the flapper system appears to be pitting area landowners against environmentalists who want to return the area to a salt marsh and allow the migration of sea-run fish up the Middle River. Town officials also have opposed removal of the flappers.
Bodge said the DOT is in the early stages of the project, which would not be completed for five years or more and could cost $4 million to $5 million. But the major sticking point is whether federal agencies — Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — would permit a new bridge that included tidal gates.
Bodge said the DOT is “in conversation” with the Army Corps of Engineers, which could provide the necessary permitting and funding to conduct a feasibility study. Such a study could take several years, Bodge said, and then developing a construction plan will take several more years.
“The Army Corps will have the final say. We want to turn over all the stones, gather all the data,” Bodge said.
Even though he said the Army Corps of Engineers appears to favor restoring the salt marsh along with other groups such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that opinion will not be given more weight than the public’s desire to keep the sea at bay.
A similar project is under way in nearby Addison — the only town in Maine with a dike and bridge system similar to that in Machias — and Bodge said an agreement has been reached with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the tidal gates and restore a saltwater marsh.
“This will be a shorter process than Machias and should be completed by 2013,” Bodge said. Bodge urged residents to follow the Addison project carefully to see its effects. “We won’t move forward at Machias without a public process,” he stressed.