MACHIAS, Maine — Despite a recent letter to town officials from the Maine Department of Transportation that referred to the Machias dike as a bridge, state officials said Monday that no decision has been made about replacing the dike.
DOT project manager Steve Bodge said the letter was sent from DOT’s environmental office in an effort to gather historical information about the area.
“We have not moved forward. There has been no decision,” Bodge said. He stressed that DOT still is looking at options, including retaining the dike and flapper system or replacing the dike with a bridge.
He said no public hearing has been held on the issue for more than a year because there has been no movement on the project.
The dike, which has been in place since the 1800s, contains four flappers — a style of tidal gate — to keep seawater out of the Middle River at high tide. When the tide is low, the flappers are open, allowing the Middle River to flow freely into the Machias River estuary. When the tide is high, the flappers close, blocking the seawater.
The dike is also an integral part of Machias life. Its large parking area provides a scenic outlook and hosts the Machias Farmers Market and dozens of flea market sellers in all seasons.
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, allowing the sea back into the river basin, would affect 10 Machias property owners and 55 Marshfield property owners and create what opponents 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 Monday that 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.
The key to whether the tidal gates are included in the bridge plan is DOT’s ability to obtain the necessary construction permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“It’s not the money,” Bodge said Monday. “It’s permitting.”
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 building 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, that opinion will not be given more weight than the public’s desire to keep the sea at bay.
In the nearby town of Addison — the only other town in Maine with a dike and bridge system similar to that in Machias — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to remove the tidal gates and restore a saltwater marsh. Bodge said the Army Corps of Engineers and DOT have reached a verbal agreement on that project which is expected to be signed soon.
“Once that is done, we will finally have a schedule for the feasibility study, the design and finally, construction. 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.