BELFAST, Maine — For decades, a 10-mile stretch of the Goose River generated hydroelectric power as water tumbled through three power plants and five dams on its way from Swan Lake to Penobscot Bay.
But those days are no more.
Belfast-based Goose River Hydro, which was run as a family business by Larry and Cathy Gleeson for more than 30 years and which was purchased by two Maine Maritime Academy midshipmen in 2013, is offline — for good. After a complicated, two-year effort, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission declined to relicense the hydropower plant in April 2020.
And as the current owners of what’s now called Goose River Properties determine what to do with the dams, power plants and land they own along the Goose River, some in the community have questions and concerns about the waterway’s future.
Those include Lee and Jenny Duffey, who recently purchased a retirement home on Lower Mason Pond. Water levels on the small pond on the Goose River are controlled by the Kelly Dam, part of the defunct hydropower plant. The Duffeys, of Sarasota, Florida, had searched the state for four years for the right place. When they came to Belfast and saw the house on Lower Mason Pond, that was it for them.
“We really wanted fresh water,” Lee Duffey said. “With climate change issues, that was really important to us.”
They purchased their home on Sept. 4, 2020, and one month later, their real estate agent got a call from Goose River Properties. The dams were for sale — and a potential buyer from out of state was considering having them removed. Should that come to pass, it could have devastating consequences for Lower Mason Pond.
Did the Duffeys have any interest in buying the Kelly Dam for $125,000?
For the couple, that call marked the start of an 8-month-long, ad-hoc graduate course in Maine waterways and dams. They’ve talked to federal and state agencies, law firms and environmental groups. They learned about a colonial-era law still on the books that provides dam owners control over the water levels in rivers, lakes and ponds.
Ultimately, they decided they didn’t want to buy the dam themselves, especially as they are currently part-time Belfast residents. But they are concerned that a future owner might not care what happens to the pond.
“I don’t know anything about dams or dam maintenance. I don’t have a public works department. Maintaining a fence in your backyard or a swimming pool is a different story, but maintaining a dam frightens us,” Lee Duffey said. “We don’t want to own a dam. What we want to do is protect the pond.”
More than a century ago, there were 33 dams on the Goose River, all of which used waterpower to make axe handles, grind grain, mill lumber and make leather board for Maine’s shoe industry.
Nicholas Cabral and Nicholas Berner were only 21 when they purchased the hydro utility, which they learned about from a professor at Maine Maritime Academy. They began generating electricity in 2014, after putting a lot of time, money and sweat equity into getting the dams and utility running again.
But when it was time to relicense the utility, they ran into difficulties. At some point in the process, Berner sold his stake in the company and Cabral took on a new partner, Belfast businessman Kyle Skinner.
Operating licenses for hydropower projects that aren’t owned by the federal government expire every 30 to 50 years, and getting them relicensed is no small task. Dam owners must go through many steps to show that the project reflects current environmental standards and public values.
A small, mom-and-pop hydroelectric project such as Goose River Hydro needed to jump through the same hoops as a much larger project would, including analyzing water flow and water quality, performing prehistoric and historic studies, doing aquatic habitat surveys and more. But they couldn’t without funding, and they couldn’t get funding without the permit.
The federal Division of Hydropower Licensing dismissed Goose River Hydro’s application, saying it failed to provide plans to address public safety, repairs and erosion concerns, among other issues.
Dams for sale
That left Cabral and Skinner with some decisions to make. Now, they owned dams, power plants and land along the Goose River, but couldn’t generate electricity there. Last year, the company, now called Goose River Properties, started to sell off parts of the former utility.
They began with the Swan Lake Dam, located at the southern outlet of the lake in Swanville. One of the company’s co-owners approached town officials last May to say they were considering selling the dam to an out-of-state investor who might remove it, according to Swanville First Selectman Cindy Boguen.
That’s the same thing that Goose River Properties officials told the Duffeys, and it alarmed residents of the lakeside community.
At a special town meeting in November, Swanville residents unanimously voted to approve the town’s purchase of the dam for $150,000.
Bill Baxter, the treasurer of the Swan Lake Association, said that the town closed on the sale earlier this year. The new Swan Lake Dam committee, which is comprised of people from Swanville, Searsport and Frankfort, has control of the gates and will share the cost of maintenance.
“I think it’s actually going pretty well,” he said. “It’s not exactly rocket science. To determine the water level, you literally drive by the dam and look and determine the water level. You don’t need special gauges. … Now there are people who live in Swanville who have that control.”
A plan for the river
Goose River Properties also sold Mason’s Dam, which governs the water level of Upper Mason Pond, to James Munkelt, who owns land on the pond.
But the Duffeys are pursuing other resolutions, including searching for a nonprofit or other entity capable of managing the dam. When they learned the Downeast Salmon Federation, based in Columbia Falls, also is in talks with Goose River Properties, it came as a relief.
“They have resources and a plan for the river,” Lee Duffey said. “There’s great hope, and I think great interest, with the Downeast Salmon Federation.”
Dwayne Shaw, the executive director of the federation, said Friday that his group is looking at options. One would be to work with stakeholders and agencies to remove the two lowest dams on the river to improve water quality and fish access, and build fish passages on Mason’s Dam and Kelly Dam.
“We’ve been evaluating the interests of the community and a new vision of what the Goose River might be,” he said.
The Duffeys also approached the city of Belfast about creating a proposed Mason Ponds Water Level Ordinance. If the city adopted this, it would maintain the depth and shorelines for both Upper and Lower Mason ponds, regardless of who owns the dams, they said.
“Doing so would maintain property values and natural beauty along with wildlife habitats, recreational outlets and the environmental benefits of the area,” they wrote in a memo to the city.
But at the Belfast City Council meeting on April 20, the Duffeys and Skinner shared opposing views.
“The Duffeys are proposing to enact a water level ordinance with very little to no data to support its need,” Skinner told councilors. “To suggest the river is at risk and requires municipal oversight is bewildering to me.”
But, the Duffeys said, an ordinance is simply a way the city can protect the ponds.
“Passing a water level ordinance gives the city options with no downside,” Lee Duffey said. “The city may need these options if a current or future owner threatens to manipulate water levels, breach the dams, neglect or abandon them.”
To Bub Fournier, director of the Belfast code and planning department, having the city adopt a water level ordinance does not necessarily seem like the easy solution the Duffeys have posited it would be. In Maine, if a dam owner no longer wants a dam, there’s a path to have the state regulate water levels and minimum flows. That state process can be initiated by waterfront property owners, land trusts, conservation groups and other stakeholders, but it would be precluded by a municipal ordinance.
However, Skinner, the co-owner of Goose River Properties, said this week that while he and Cabral have looked to sell some of the dams, they have no plans to abandon the remainder.
“We either sell them or we don’t. Nothing’s going to change if we keep them. That’s really the gist of it,” Skinner said. “We’re able to care for the dams and maintain them … There’s no scary thing about these dams.”