OXFORD — Should Oxford agree to share ownership of the Thompson Lake Dam with the towns of Otisfield, Poland and Casco?

At least one board of selectmen in a neighboring town think they should.

Otisfield Selectman Hal Ferguson, a member of the Thompson Lake Dam Advisory Committee, told fellow committee members and others at a committee meeting on May 23 that the three towns, which all have tax-paying properties on the lake, should have equal say and therefore equal financial responsibility over the maintenance of the dam.

The move by Ferguson and others, including members of the Thompson Lake Environmental Association, to gain ownership rights comes on the heels of the Oxford Board of Selectmen’s decision to spend $260,000 to repair the deteriorating east sluice of the dam, that is located off King Street.

Oxford selectmen approved an $8,900 contract with MBP Consulting of Portland last November to design a new gate for the east sluice after the firm investigated and discovered bowing and other serious issues with the east sluice that they say is in danger of failing.

If the stop logs fail, an uncontrolled flow of water would be released resulting in a significant drop in lake levels and probable property damage, according to Town Manager Butch Asselin, who chairs the advisory committee.

Temporary repairs have been made to relieve pressure on the stop logs while the town waits for approval of a National Resource Protection Act application that is being submitted to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for the east sluice gate replacement.

Oxford now faces a $260,000 repair bill for the east sluice gate; something Ferguson said may not be the most financially feasible solution in the long run.

Leslie H. Dixon

Value in dam

The existing cut stone dam, which controls water levels on Thompson Lake, was first built in 1800 and rebuilt in 1861 and modified in 1974. It impounds Thompson Lake’s 4,225 acres of water and a 35-square-mile watershed. Its lake front property houses approximately 1,200 seasonal and year-round residences, several summer youth camps and public launches around the lake.

Although it was owned by the Robinson Manufacturing Company, which operated a mill at the site for parts of two centuries, in 2009 that company shut down. Oxford sold off the former mill in 2013 for nonpayment of taxes, and secured rights to the dam for the town.

The lake is considered not only an important source of recreation, but an important source of taxes for the four towns.

According to the Thompson Lake Environmental Association, the lakefront properties account for at least 30 % of the tax base in at least one of the towns. The average list price for Thompson Lake homes for sale is $369,000., according to Lakes Homes Realty.

The dam and its future is of no small consequence to each of the towns, which currently provide a voluntary $5,000 each year to a maintenance fund controlled by the town of Oxford.

Ferguson, who oversaw replacement of the failing Pleasant Lake Dam several years ago with the town of Casco, says joint ownership of a dam, such as the one between Casco and Otisfield, can be successful.

Ferguson and others contend that all four towns should have a say in what happens to the Thompson Lake Dam and he has asked that the boards of selectmen in Poland and Casco declare whether they would support such a move.

The Board of Selectmen in Otisfield are unanimous in their support of joint ownership, he said..

“We should have a little say on how money is being invested,” Ferguson said.

“Otisfield certainly would have willing to help out (with larger repair bills,)” said Ferguson. Instead, he said, the Board of Selectmen in Oxford went ahead and decided on its own how to spend the money without talking with other towns.

“Is it still economical to put Band-Aids on the dam?” he asked.

Dam’s condition

According to the 61-page Natural Resources Protection Act application, the dam was inspected by the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) in 1998 and MBP Consulting in 2018. Both inspections found the dam to be in fair to poor condition.

The application states that the condition is evidenced by “large voids, open joints, missing mortar, vegetative growth and excessive leakage through the dam masonry jeopardizing the integrity of the structure. Noticeable increase in masonry void size and amount of leakage was recorded in the last 20 years.”

The “major dam deficiency” was reported to be related to the east sluice where many of the stop logs are inoperable or deficient.

If they fail, the report states, the result could be the lowering of lake levels for extended periods of time and adverse affect on the lake ecology and shoreline property values.

According to the application, the main purpose of the new east sluice gate would be to reduce the risk of sudden failure and uncontrollable release of lake waters downstream.

According to Myron Petrovsky of MPV Consulting, the dam is not designed for overtopping. Industry leaders, he said, say overtopping incidences account for about 80 % of dam failures.

A June 4, 2018 report from the MPV Consulting, the condition of the dam is judged to be fair (needs maintenance) to poor (judged to have deteriorated beyond maintenance and requires repair.) The dam deficiencies, the report stated, may require in the future “significant repairs to improve operation and reduce the risk of incidences or failure of the dam.”

In his report, Petrovsky made six alternative plans to repair the dam including taking no action, removing the dam, restricting the lake level, replacing the east sluice stop logs, construction of a new dam and rehabbing the existing dam.

Selectmen chose the last alternative, rehabilitation of the existing dam, for remedial design.

Asselin said Petrovsky indicated to him earlier this month “that the dam’s useful life will increase 50-100 years once the project is completed.”

“According to Myron, replacement of the east gate is actually only 10-15 % of the project. The projected cost of this project is $260,000 whereas replacement of the dam has been estimated to be $1.5-$2 million,” he said.

Joint ownership

Asselin said last week that three of the five Oxford select board members have indicated to him that they would not be in favor of joint ownership.

“In my view, the biggest disadvantage to sharing ownership is a loss of control for Oxford residents,” Asselin told the Advertiser Democrat. “I am certainly open to new ideas and suggestions but based on my conversations thus far, I don’t see how this proposal is substantially beneficial to Oxford residents.

“I think the proponents have good intentions but if this were to occur, I could foresee a scenario where Oxford residents could be expected to take on more debt if the representatives from other communities decided to replace the dam rather than repair it,” he continued. “If this proposal were to move forward, ultimately the townspeople from Oxford and each community would have to weigh in on the costs and benefits to sharing ownership of the dam.”

Asselin said that Oxford has spent approximately $45,000 from the capital account to have MBP Consulting perform an inspection of the dam and prepare a report.

Additionally, he said, the money was spent for divers, to close off and secure the gate that diverted water under the former Robinson Mill, replace bolts in all of the gate guides, check for scouring on the downstream side of the dam, remove trees growing in the abutments and granite wall and shore up the east gate until the replacement of the gate.

The remainder of that money will also be used to contracting with a firm to do a study on repairing the retaining wall and plugging leaks in the abutments, Asselin said.

“There was a lack of maintenance on the dam over the years but the town is well on its way on protecting its asset,” he said.

Next week, selectmen in Poland and Casco are expected to be canvassed as to whether they would consider seeking joint ownership of the dam. If the consensus is yes, that information will be forwarded to the Oxford Board of Selectmen, said Ferguson. The action would have to be approved by voters in each town.

Oxford voters may also be asked to appropriate another $50,000 of the necessary $260,000 repair cost at annual town meeting on Saturday June 8. The meeting begins at 10 a.m. in the Oxford Elementary School cafeteria.

A public hearing will be held on June 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Oxford Town Office for a review of the town’s intent to file the permit application for the dam repairs.

More information about the project and how to make a donation to the repair project is available at the town of Oxford website: https://oxfordmaine.org/thompson-lake-dam/.


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