City plan for canals continues to develop

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LEWISTON — A city plan to take over the canals downtown received narrow support from the Planning Board on Monday.

Lincoln Jeffers, assistant to the city administrator, said he’s still working out the financial details that would allow the city to purchase the canals from Florida Power and Light.

“We’re trying to come to terms with them for some way to transfer ownership in exchange for some of the city’s water rights,” Jeffers said. “We’re looking for a way to do all of this that has a low impact on property taxes, but keeps the canals public and keeps them full of water.”

The Planning Board voted to recommend the matter to the council by a 4-3 vote, with members  Mike Marcotte, Kevin Morrisette and Eric Potvin voting against.

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“They really wanted to see more details about the deal and the negotiations,” City Planner David Hediger said.

The matter is tentatively scheduled for a City Council review at the June 7 meeting.

The canals were dug in the mid-1800s and have been a feature of the downtown ever since. The 4,400-foot-long main canal runs from just above the Great Falls, through downtown along Canal Street to Gulley Brook, where it empties back into the Androscoggin River.

The Cross Canal cuts off from the main canal at about Ash Street, running to the river. The lower canal cuts off from the Cross Canal at about Oxford Street, running parallel to the main canal before turning back to the river at about Chestnut Street.

The city has been negotiating with Florida Power and Light concerning the canals for two years, and Jeffers said there are several complicated issues involved.

The utility owns the canals and is able to determine how much water flows through them.

The city has a single federally licensed hydro-powered generator along the canal at the southern end of the old Androscoggin Mill. As long as it maintains that license, FPL is required to keep water flowing at a 150 cubic-feet-per-second rate.

The city’s generator is ancient and badly in need of repairs.

“We lose money on that generator,” Jeffers said. “We spend much more to maintain that turbine than we get from the power it generates. But without it, the canals will dry up.”

Under the current plan, Lewiston would close the generator and surrender its federal license to generate electricity. Florida Power and Light would transfer canal ownership to the city and would then guarantee to keep water flowing at 70 cubic feet per second. 

Jeffers presented an outline to the Planning Board in February. According to the February presentation, the company would also agree to invest $12.6 million in taxable improvements to the Gulf Island and Deer Rips dams and the Monty Hydro generating station. Lewiston would then create tax increment financing districts, returning some of the new tax revenue to Florida Power and Light and using $750,000 of it to repair leaks in the canal system.

On Wednesday, Jeffers said financial details about purchase price and the TIF were will being settled.

“We’re still running the pro formas and double-checking our numbers,” he said. “We’re not ready to release the details yet.”

Jeffers said he hopes to have them settled before the matter goes the City Council at the June 7 meeting.

staylor@sunjournal.com

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