Potter Hill Mill Dam project dead in the water after Westerly council vote

WESTERLY — Plans to remove, either partially or completely, the Potter Hill Mill Dam have been scuttled by the Town Council as it looks to renew its focus on taking what remains of the mill itself down.

In voting 6-0 Monday not to approve a new contract with an environmental engineering firm, the council effectively ended the town’s participation in a multi-year grant project sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aimed at addressing the dam, which crosses the Pawcatuck River. The council had previously voted to support and pursue an option, known as Alternative 3, that would lower the dam slightly and include construction of a full-height, nature-like pool and riffle fishway. It was one of the options presented by Fuss & O’Neil, the environmental engineering firm, but not the approach recommended by the firm.

Prior to the vote on Monday, Town Council President Sharon Ahern discussed a pre-application meeting held in December with the state Department of Environmental Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The meeting was intended to give town officials a read on whether the council’s preferred approach was likely to make it through the state and federal permitting process.

“It became quickly obvious that under the NOAA grant Alternative 3 would not be permitted. The parameters of the grant are very clear that they want increased fish passage, and that is not what Alternative 3 does,” Ahern said.

The NOAA grant was intended to improve fish passage, decrease flood risk, improve water quality and improve recreational uses of the river.

Alternative 3 would also have required approval by the Federal Emergency Management Agency due to the potential for increased flood risk along a portion of the river, said Nils Wiberg, Fuss & O’Neill’s chief water resources engineer. Fuss & O’Neill recommended complete removal of the dam and creation of a riffle-pool channel. But members of the Town Council sided with several Westerly and Hopkinton property owners who live on the river and said complete removal of the dam would drastically change the river, put drinking water wells at risk, and cause property values to drop. Many of the property owners addressed the council on Monday repeating their opposition to Fuss & O’Neill’s recommendation and their support of Alternative 3. The grant could have been used to address the potential for damaged wells, Wiberg said.

On Monday Wiberg discussed a new potential approach — analyzing how to lower the dam to achieve the goals of the grant and also maintain the ability for property owners to enjoy use of the river.

Councilor Karen Cioffi questioned the current analysis.

“I do not believe that doing Alternative 3 will increase the flood level. I will not support anything other than Alternative 3 or doing nothing,” Cioffi said.

For decades the town has tried to have the mill repaired or demolished and the property cleaned up. In 2019 the council approved having John Dorsey, a lawyer with experience in receivership cases, petition a Superior Court judge to have the mill property put in receivership. The judge consented and Dorsey was appointed to serve as special master and charged with finding a way to address the public health problem posed by the mill buildings, which are falling into the river and attract young people and others.

DEM has classified the dam, which officials say has rarely been maintained in recent years, as a low hazard. Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. said the dam does not pose an imminent threat to safety.

“I would say because it’s not an immediate danger and because what the neighbors want and what the grant wants doesn’t jive, I want to concentrate on getting the mill down,” Cooke said.

The council has earmarked $400,000 of the town’s allotment of federal COVID-19 relief funds to be used toward the cost of demolishing the mill buildings, cleaning the property up, and preparing it for public use. On Monday, Dorsey told the council that the proposed demolition will require a review by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission. In addition to plans for the mill, the commission will also want to review the town’s plans for the dam.

Dorsey has also informed town officials that he hopes to soon seek transfer of “site control” of the mill property, which includes the dam, to the town or look to sell the property on the open market.

Councilor Christopher Duhamel and a few other councilors questioned whether the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission could stop the town’s demolition plan if the commission decides it wants the town to address both the buildings and the dam. Ahern asked Town Attorney William Conley to study the extent of the commission’s authority.

The council’s decisions Monday were not well received by environmental organizations that have worked for decades to restore the river to a more natural state by removing other dams that impeded fish passage and created hazards for canoes and kayaks.

“It’s a huge missed opportunity. Removing the Potter Hill Dam would have reduced flood risks upstream and downstream, significantly enhanced paddling on the river and maximized a decade’s worth of community investments in fish passage on the Pawcatuck River. The NOAA grant was a significant down payment on finishing the job. Once the town gives those federal dollars up, it’s going to be very difficult to get them back,” said John Torgan, Rhode Island state director of the Nature Conservancy.

The Nature Conservancy had contributed $132,550 toward the cost of the Potter Hill Mill Dam study and preparation work conducted by Fuss & O’Neill. NOAA provided $100,000 for the first year of the grant and was expected to contribute an additional $702,810 toward the cost of removing the dam, construction of a new fish passage, permitting fees, and the cost of design and engineering.

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