Winthrop weighs $100,000 cost to save home from erosion

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WINTHROP — Town officials who are trying to help a family whose home is threatened by erosion say they are worried the solution could cost taxpayers up to $100,000. 

The town already has agreed to stabilize the land around the home of Patricia and Tom Heiss, as part of a larger project to repair the nearby dam at the Maranacook Lake outlet. 

That larger repair will cost $476,500, and is being funded by Readfield and Winthrop taxpayers. Work is to start next June. 

A small portion of that funding, about $17,200, will go to stabilizing the stream bank below the dam, including a section on the Heisses’ Bowdoin Street property.

The couple have agreed to give the town permanent access to their property, in exchange for preventing future erosion of their land by clearing vegetation and laying down protective rocks, known as riprap.  

However, the Heisses fear their home might not last through winter and spring, and they have been urging the town to do that work sooner. 

They warn that the stream bank has eroded 8 feet during the last dozen years, and that just 6 feet of earth remains between the stream bank and the southwest corner of the house. Those changes, they say, already have caused their home to start shifting. 

“We had another loud bang and tremor at 12:15 a.m. last night,” Tom Heiss said late last month. “They are occurring almost weekly now. The whole house shudders and shakes like an earthquake.”

In recent meetings, members of the Winthrop Town Council have expressed willingness to help the Heisses sooner than next summer, but it is not clear whether quicker fixes are possible, at least at a cost they can accept.

The company selected to do the dam repair, H.E. Callahan Construction Co., has said it might be able to complete the stream bank stabilization after Nov. 1 of this year, Town Manager Ryan Frost said Monday night at a monthly meeting of the Town Council.

Any extra work to benefit the Heisses would come at a significantly steeper price, given the additional engineering, the difficulties of working in colder weather and the fact that Winthrop officials have agreed to not ask Readfield to fund any of the extra work. 

Based on Frost’s informal conversations with contractors, he said completing the stream bank stabilization this fall could cost up to $100,000. He also referred to a report by the firm S.W. Cole Engineering Inc. that estimated the work would cost $45,000 to $65,000. The Heisses paid for that report.

The contractors “haven’t given me a price yet,” Frost said Monday night. “They’re working on it. They still haven’t developed it, but they have said it would be substantial.”

Frost suggested councilors stick with the plan of doing the work beginning next June, which has been recommended by a special committee of Winthrop and Readfield residents overseeing the dam repair. He acknowledged it was a difficult choice for the Town Council and the Heisses would probably object to his suggestion. 

Frost also said he looked into an temporary fix that would cost at least $18,500 and involve a concrete-like material being sprayed over the stream bank to hold it together this winter, but said he ran the idea by Tom Heiss, who did not think it was worth pursuing. 

Despite Frost’s warnings, councilors insisted they want to help the Heisses. They asked Frost to go back to the contractors to see if they could start the stream bank work sooner than November.

“Ryan has been talking with Callahan multiple times each week to look at options to expedite the project,” said Sarah Fuller, chairwoman of the Town Council. “We can certainly redouble those efforts to see how soon we can make something happen.”

While the Heisses attended the meeting Monday night, they did not speak extensively. Multiple people spoke on their behalf, including Amanda Meader, a lawyer who lives in Winthrop, and Steve McLaughlin, an engineer retired from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. 

Multiple members of the Town Council also said something needs to be done for the Heisses, particularly given that the couple first approached the town more than a decade ago to voice their concern about the erosion.

At the time, the town had recently taken ownership of the dam from Carleton Woolen Mills, a local company that had gone bankrupt. 

At a Town Council meeting in July 2006, Tom Heiss proposed the town place riprap on his land in exchange for an easement. According to minutes from the meeting, he agreed to grant the town a three-year temporary easement so the town could explore potential sources of funding for any work.

On Monday night, Councilor Andy Wess referred to that meeting. 

“The start date for when this became a major issue was 2006, and this is 2018,” Wess said. “You know the Heisses are losing their land, and their home is falling into the stream. It seems like something’s got to be done.” 

The main goal of the dam repair is to improve the ability of Winthrop and Readfield to control water levels on Maranacook Lake. With the current dam, waterfront lawns can flood by as much as 2 feet in the spring.

Officials had hoped to do the repair in the summer of 2017, but they delayed it for more than a year when the cost turned out to be higher than expected. 

Tom Heiss talks in February 2017 about construction plans at his house next to the Maranacook dam in Winthrop. (Staff file photo by Joe Phelan)

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